DJ Taylor: Top marks to our Schools minister

We may not like his party, but Nick Gibb is trying to right reading wrongs – and is vilified for his trouble

Dj Taylor
Sunday 12 February 2012 01:00
Embattled: Theresa May has been wringing her hands over
Abu Qatada
Embattled: Theresa May has been wringing her hands over Abu Qatada

It was a week in which a kind of mini-cavalcade of distressed government ministers could be found vying for public sympathy. To the former energy secretary, Chris Huhne, who resigned on Monday in advance of his prosecution for alleged motoring offences, could be added the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was reduced to writing piteous articles in The Sun about her inability to deport the Muslim cleric Abu Qatada. To Ms May, as the week wore on, could be added the luckless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, and his selection as fall-guy for the Government's NHS reforms. But of all these cornered, embattled or otherwise compromised figures, the one for whom I felt the sorriest was the Schools minister, Nick Gibb.

Mr Gibb's speech at Stockwell Park High School on the subject of persuading children to read was full of eye-catching soundbites. He noted that illiteracy was intimately linked to poverty. He proposed a test for six-year-olds to see whether they knew the meanings of various basic words. Following the advice of the former children's laureate Michael Rosen, he declared his intention to issue all children of primary school age with a library card and a map. He challenged schools to be "more ambitious". Finally, with an eye to the bicentenary celebrations taking place around the country, the laying of wreaths and the fleets of penny-farthing bicycles, he suggested that every school-leaver should be able to count among their achievements the reading of a Dickens novel.

And how was Mr Gibb's speech received? There were, of course, countless jokes about the library map being vital as there were so few libraries left. The general impression wafting out of the blogosphere was that he was a sort of futile halfwit, deluded into thinking that you effect deep-rooted change by way of "tinkering". There were mutterings from the teaching unions on the perils of "over-prescription". All of this seemed to me to be horribly unfair. Naturally, one wouldn't dream of suggesting to the unions that a situation in which four in 10 school-leavers are estimated to have some difficulty with reading hardly inspires confidence in current educational practice. Neither would one dare to add that the recent international survey of children who enjoy reading for pleasure, in which the UK rolled in at a modest 47, might suggest that there is something seriously amiss in the nation's classrooms.

One may not like Mr Gibb's party. One may think that some of his attitudes belong more to the Oxbridge common room than the vibrant, street-sharp, multicultural landscape we are supposed to inhabit. But unlike many of his predecessors he has at least realised that there is a problem and determined to do something about it.

The former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's unexpected victory in three Republican primaries, at a time when his resources were so scant that he was reduced to sleeping in supporters' spare rooms, is thought to have galvanised American conservatism. Commentators suggest the next month or two will offer the amusing, when not frightening, spectacle of Messrs Romney, Gingrich and Paul trying desperately to see how right wing they can be without foaming at the mouth or perpetrating some gaffe that will detach all but the rabid Southern evangelical fringe from their fan base.

But to examine Santorum's achievements and opinions (the former mixed, the latter terrifying) is to be struck by the utter bastardisation of US conservative thought in the past 40 years. The movement's founding father is always assumed to be the late Barry Goldwater, who, while carrying a handful of Southern states in the 1964 presidential election, went down before Lyndon B Johnson in one of the biggest defeats in US electoral history. And yet Goldwater, deep-dyed New Deal-disliking reactionary that he may have been, was also a libertarian, who thought that anti-abortion laws were a denial of personal freedom, that homosexuality was a matter for homosexuals and that a politician's religious beliefs should be kept away from the ballot box. If there is one thing Mr Santorum is supposed to dislike, it is libertarianism. He is quoted as saying that "the individual can't go it alone". On balance, this seems quite as ominous as any of his remarks about evolution, or the woman's right to choose, or the man's right to choose for her.

It was also a week in which several distinguished figures from the world of business and politics sought to turn back the tide of what they defined as anti-commercial sentiment. Stephen Hester, CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, mounted a stirring defence of his profession in a radio interview, while the Conservative MP Matthew Hancock complained about a climate he imagined to be "anti-business" and "anti-enterprise". If the affrontedness that came with some of these interventions (how dare anyone question a man's God-given right to make money?) sometimes degenerated into a kind of effrontery, then it also prompted the question: when did businessmen, entrepreneurs and financial titans first acquire what can only be described as their bumptiousness?

The answer would seem to be that, like many another modern tendency, it came in the mid-19th century, when the landed interest was in sharp retreat before the emergent manufacturing classes. Victorian novels are crammed with domineering industrialists and vainglorious merchantmen – think of Mr Dombey in Dombey and Son – hamstrung by their own pride. What usually motivates critics of their 21st-century equivalent is not a sense of envy but distrust of the pervading air of entitlement. One can see this in the sweetheart deals negotiated by one or two multinationals with HMRC, beneath which run the unspoken assumption that we should all be so bloody grateful to Vodafone as not to mind when normal rules about revenue collection mysteriously don't apply.

The week's most cheering cultural news was an announcement, made by manufacturers Messrs Bamforth at a trade fair in Birmingham, that they intend to "reinvent" the seaside postcard, relaunching their range of 40,000 images on jigsaws, mugs, T-shirts, beer glasses, placemats, bookmarks, coasters, playing cards and kitchenware.

Sexist some of the jokes may appear to modern tastes, but at their best they are the source of an intimate, warm and genuinely popular brand of humour, now almost vanished from our national life. My own favourite – drawn, I think, by the matchless Donald McGill – shows two women on a street corner eyeing a diffident-looking cleric. "Does that vicar have any children?" one of them inquires. "No, apparently his stipend is too small." As well as being funny, this is a kind of sociological litmus paper, a window on to a world which most contemporary humour (with certain exceptions) no longer thinks it worthwhile to inspect.

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