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Politicians' families are a proper subject for debate

ALMOST two years ago Madam Speaker Boothroyd said she deplored the introduction of members' children into debate. She was quite fierce on the subject, about which she clearly felt strongly. The unfortunate Conservative who was asking the question sank to his seat, suppressed. I thought at the time that Madam Speaker was being both unrealistic and mistaken, for what a politician chooses to do about his or her children's education is surely a legitimate subject for political comment and debate - as much as his or her use of the NHS. In the past, the practice of Labour politicians has varied. So has the amount of attention which it has aroused.

Anthony Crosland, the minister more responsible than any other for comprehensive schools, removed his elder stepdaughter from St Paul's Girls School and sent her to Holland Park Comprehensive. She wanted to leave, but the St Paul's headmistress accused him of using her as a "political pawn". Harold Wilson sent his two sons to University College School, Hampstead. Lord Callaghan's daughter Margaret went to a girls' grammar school in Greenwich. Lord Jay sent his son Peter to his old school, Winchester. Another Wykehamist, Richard Crossman, sent his son and daughter to the local Oxfordshire comprehensive. Ms Harriet Harman, a prominent member of the left in her hot youth - which partly accounts for last week's ill feeling - is now sending her son to St Olave's, Bromley, a grammar school.

Most people at Westminster say this decision brought about the worst week for the People's Party since Mr Tony Blair became leader. Some even claim it was the worst since the election. The party not only appeared disunited: it was disunited. Old Labour, which had been dozing fitfully in the shallows, raised its head above the waters and bared its monstrous teeth amid the foam and the splashing, before being persuaded by its keeper to resume its former disturbed slumbers.

But in the longer term the episode will probably do Labour good with the voters. It will almost certainly do both Ms Harman and Mr Blair good. The Labour leader has been tough. He has taken on his own party, a feat which persons occupying his position must always perform at some stage if they want to be taken seriously by the voters or, at any rate, by the Tory press.

Mr Blair's support for Ms Harman against those backbenchers who were calling for her to be burned at the stake for heresy - or, at least, for her to be lightly singed - is hardly comparable to Hugh Gaitskell's defiance of the unilateralists or Mr Neil Kinnock's assault on the Militants. Indeed, it can plausibly be argued that Mr Blair's triumph over Clause IV was more famous than either of these previous victories; while, over the clause itself, Gaitskell failed, and Mr Kinnock did not even try. Mr Blair had already accomplished his feat.

But these are old battles, unremembered today, except by those of us who are paid to take an interest in these matters, and not always by us. Mr Blair, as he indicated at Questions on Tuesday in one of his least unsuccessful ripostes, is keener to be compared favourably to Mr John Major. He said that, unlike the Prime Minister, he did not buckle under pressure.

Mr Major, in a series of comedies a year ago, started off by giving his full backing to some erring colleague who, after the passage of a few weeks, then proceeded to resign. But all these were cases of hand either in till or up skirt. The latter had become muddled with the "Back to Basics" campaign. As was shown conclusively in this column at the time, the slogan originally had nothing to do with sexual morality. This was demonstrated by the unfashionable method of looking up what Mr Major said at the 1994 Conservative conference.

Though it is easy to see why it suits Mr Blair's purposes to make the comparison - he wishes to be portrayed as a "strong" leader - there is really no parallel at all. If Mr Blair wants to draw a correct analogy, it is with Mr Major for keeping the doctrinally dodgy Mr Michael Portillo in his cabinet.

The comparison will be lost on the voters. To them, Ms Harman has demonstrated her humanity. She has done exactly what they would have done, or would like to be able to do. She has been a good mother to her boy. She is reminiscent of what a character in Swift's Genteel and Ingenious Conversation says about actresses: that some of them turn out to be excellent mothers. Just so. Ms Harman has shown that some women politicians can be excellent mothers as well. That is how the voters will see it.

Moreover, it is difficult to say how doctrinally dodgy, if at all, Ms Harman really has been. People have been talking as if Labour's intentions were to abolish all selection at 11, and either to integrate those schools which practised it into the comprehensive system or to allow them to exist without selection - though how they were to fill the available places without some form of discrimination was left conveniently unexplained.

But this, it seems, is not Labour's policy at all. It is to allow these schools to carry on, selecting away like billy-o unless the parents in the "feeder" primary schools object. How these plebiscites are to be carried out is anybody's guess. We are, it appears, to have local option for grammar schools, much like local option for Sunday opening in my native land. Accordingly, unless the voters in leafy Dulwich, Herne Hill, Bromley and adjacent areas object, St Olave's will retain precisely its present characteristics. Why has Ms Harman done anything wrong?

There is a close parallel here with grant-maintained (also known as opted- out) comprehensive schools. The common understanding used to be that such establishments would be returned to local authority control. Then Mr and Mrs Blair decided to send their son to the Oratory School. This is supposed to be an opted-out Catholic comprehensive. Its Catholicism is not in doubt. But its comprehensive nature may perhaps be more open to question. Anyway, at the time the Blairs' decision became known, we also learnt that Labour's policy was not as we had supposed it to be. The grant-maintained comprehensives would continue in uneasy alliance with the local authorities but not be absorbed by them.

The cases of Ms Harman and Mr Blair - or, rather, of their sons - raise two possibilities. The first is that Labour policy may be changed arbitrarily to suit the political convenience of its leading figures. The second possibility is that no one knows what Labour policy really is until it is extracted painfully, splinter by splinter, in episodes such as last week's. We have seen the identical process at work (even though it was not set in train by any individual case) with the untidy unravelling of the plans for English regional assemblies. It is evident that in many areas Labour does not have the faintest idea what it is going to do in government. From this point of view, the case of Ms Harman's son has not done the party any good at all.