Leading Article: Bernie's message for Britain: reach for the stars

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This week will probably be remembered as Harriet Harman's nightmare, the week when the middle classes tormented themselves about the Right Thing To Do when choosing a school - the week when the country was split over whether Ms Harman should be martyred or canonised.

But she did not express the most potent feelings of the week. We expect privileged people such as Harriet Harman to worry about balancing aspiration and personal ambition against their obligations to the rest of society. They have been torturing themselves for generations. Noblesse oblige, duty, guilt, shame - there is a whole vocabulary available to rehearse their dilemmas.

The really startling revelation came not from Ms Harman, but from Bernie Grant, her fellow Labour MP. As Ms Harman gave a grovelling apology, Mr Grant committed a far greater heresy: he said that he wished he had sent his children to a private school rather than to the local comprehensive in Tottenham, north London. State education had "very, very seriously hampered" their progress. And he - representative of some of Britain's most deprived voters - had had enough of it. His children - and presumably the children of his constituents - deserved better.

Britain is not used to hearing aspirations from these quarters. A prince may aspire to a pauper's life, but the poor man is meant to stay at the rich man's gate. There is still a disappointing acceptance among too many less advantaged people that they should, in fact, know their place. And the place for working-class children is in the state system, however inadequate that may be. They too easily accept what they are given: only the middle and upper classes enjoy the privilege of wrestling with the choice of private education. As for health care, everyone is meant to accept that "rationing" is inevitable, even good for the soul.

Mr Grant's intervention has exposed a lie: the notion that dissatisfaction, ambition and desire to achieve is essentially middle class. A man who has so often been pilloried as Barmy Bernie has become the first modern Labour politician to legitimise an appetite for self-improvement, a desire for ordinary people to get the best for themselves and their children. Harriet Harman exposed her own guilt-ridden struggles and that of Labour- supporting professionals. Bernie Grant did more: he liberated an authentic anger at underachievement felt by the great mass of voters.

This energy was harnessed by Margaret Thatcher, whose policy of selling council houses ditched Labour's paternalism and acknowledged that the wish to own property was virtually universal. But Thatcherism's appeal to ambition and aspiration palled: it tipped over into an association with greed. It did little to provide ordinary people with better education. Meanwhile, the Nineties recession and housing slump suggested that Thatcherism had offered empty promises.

Now Mr Grant has opened a road for Labour to express personal ambition - a word which, in British society, and left-of-centre British society in particular, has been made to seem vulgar and unattractive. But Bernie's message poses many problems. There is Britain's anti-aspirational culture to overcome. We are more interested in failure than success (just think how the Duchess of York's amazing success in raising $4m has been belittled).

Prejudice still shuts people out of many jobs where connections, accent and colour of skin play an insidious role in determining who gets to do what. For all the Prime Minister's talk of creating a classless society, his image of warm beer and cricket on the village green recalls a static, class-ridden country.

The process of diminishing potential starts early. Mr Grant is not the first parent to complain about lack of drive instilled by schools. "The staff believe the kids won't make it," he said. "They don't encourage the kids to fix their aspirations high."

These problems are graphically illustrated in sport, whose chief institutions, be it the MCC or Wimbledon, remain riddled with outdated snobbery that excludes rather than encourages a great deal of potential talent. Combined with the anti-competitive ethos that has overtaken the school sports system, Britain is in the second division of sporting nations, in just the same way as its economy has already slipped down the table.

People collude in their own underachievement. Parents who have been let down by their own education often fail to expect the best of their own children, and so the cycle of underachievement carries on. In Britain, those who distinguish themselves at school can find themselves isolated as swots. And there is still much begrudging within poorer communities of those who excel: dismissed as class traitors, in league with the toffs and bosses.

Political leaders - whether Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown or John Major - should recognise the importance of Bernie Grant's intervention. By breaking Labour ranks, he has demonstrated the leadership that is needed to wake people up to chase their ambitions and accept them as honourable and legitimate.

The middle classes are ahead of the game. They realise that they can no longer simply pass middle-classness on to their children by giving them the right manners and good connections. John Major's image of inheritance cascading down the generations will not be enough to guarantee their security, as Britain becomes more meritocratic, more competitive. If middle-class families are to hang on to their status, they must give their children skills and education. Nothing, not even Harriet Harman's political ambitions, can be allowed to stand in the way of that imperative.

Bernie Grant understands the urgency. The child of two teachers, an immigrant whose education was his chief asset, he is tuned in to the dangers of today's competitive economy. Most of his constituents are ill-equipped to deal with the future. They risk being left behind.

They need a society that will build and harness their ambitions, not diminish them and so preserve an anachronistic order. That might mean big changes, such as introducing vouchers into the schools system, weighted in favour of the less well-off, empowering parents to do the best for their children. It might involve an expansion of more individually funded health care - the use of alternative therapies is demonstrating the level of personal initiative in health care.

Mr Grant has pointed the way towards fresh thinking from Labour. Many voters - even Labour supporters - are no longer happy with what they are given. They want to seek out their own horizons. Labour should back them.