From exams to coronavirus, it's clear our government is not up to the task – we should all be very angry

When you see the qualities and people that are needed to deal with this, you reach the view that the task of governing is beyond those in charge. That is quite a dangerous reality

Alastair Campbell
Wednesday 19 August 2020 18:17 BST
Gavin Williamson refuses to say whether he has offered to resign over A-levels fiasco

Guten morgen, and welcome to a schools news update from Germany. I will seek to translate and impart this knowledge in the tone in which it is being reported on Monday morning’s news bulletin. Feel free, if you wish, to imagine me as a newsreader, as pictures of maps, children, teachers and politicians play in the background…

“Children in three more of the country’s 16 Länder are returning to school today. This means that over half of Germany is now back at school, broadly on schedule with the usual post-holiday return times.

“Today, it is the turn of Hessen, Rheinland-Pfalz and Saarland to get their young people back into the classroom. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her education minister held a video meeting with education ministers from the governments of all Länder to discuss the return, and to agree the next steps in further digitalisation of learning.

“They discussed lessons to be learned from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the first state to go back late last month, where a small number of schools have had to close due to infections.

“Good news though from the Goethe-Gymnasium in Ludwigslust, which was completely closed two weeks ago when three teachers were discovered to be infected, but may now re-open. This, after 205 pupils and 55 teachers who may have been in contact with the three teachers, all passed two coronavirus tests administered while they were in quarantine.”

Bulletin over. It was not the lead story anywhere – the Democrat Convention, and Donald Trump’s latest attempt to rig the election, with the help of his backers in the US postal service, seemed to be winning that one. And here is a list of words, none of which appeared in the German reports: fiasco, farce, shambles, split, protests, pressure, anger, algorithm.

Now I move from that calm, Teutonic competence and dip into the education debate back home. These words appear aplenty, even in the papers that normally bend over backwards in support of the Boris Johnson news mismanagement factory, as the UK government ought to be called; though I note the Daily Express is still soundly on message: “New battle to free UK from EU shackles.” And there was me thinking Brexit was done, the oven-ready deal was baked, the pesky foreigners had learned they needed us more than we needed them.

Consider, too, the different approaches from Merkel and Johnson.

Two things to note here. First, the German chancellor sees her job as uniting and leading the different parts of the system, regardless of their politics. Whereas Johnson can and does go months without so much as a phone call with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, let alone local government leaders, unless they are fully signed up, Johnson-supporting Tory Brexiteers. In Germany, devolution of power is real, and local leaders and systems are treated with trust and respect.

Second, the point about digital learning. The discussion in Germany with local governments was set in the context of one of Merkel’s main strategic priorities. Indeed, when she announced the priorities for the current German presidency of the EU, digitalisation was one of them, along with dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and providing a Europe-wide solution to the economic crisis it has caused, on which enormous progress has already been made.

It is hard to overstate, whether on competence or values, the difference between the two governments. But frankly, you could compare the UK government with any EU country and find that on virtually every aspect of the Covid-19 crisis, Johnson and his team of second-rate ministers (I am being generous) have handled it worse.

He is not in the same league as a Merkel or a Macron. When Der Spiegel wrote recently about Johnson, they did so in a piece headlined, “The four leaders of the infected world”, referring to Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Johnson. That is the depth to which he and his populism have taken us.

What Brexit and Covid-19 have shown, what the exams farce/fiasco/shambles is showing, is that government requires more than a propaganda factory spewing out three-word slogans. There are so many complicated issues that flowed from the virus into the education system. Leaders like Merkel saw what they were, and ensured they were gripped, on time, in good order. Johnson instead lurches from one cock-up to the next, blusters about unions and blathers about “moral responsibility”, a subject on which he is as unqualified to speak as Gavin Williamson is to speak of helping children to deliver their full potential.

Boris Johnson: Moral duty to get all children back in school

Amid the rage I felt reading about the continuing shambles came a little light relief from the soon to be ennobled Ruth Davidson, a former Tory leader in Scotland, saying that “the education secretary needs to get out on the television; he needs to be telling people what’s going on.” Expecting Williamson to get a grip is about as sensible an approach as waiting for Johnson to get through a day without lying.

When you look at Germany, and see the qualities, and the quality of people, that are needed to deal with something as complex as this, you reach the view that the task of governing is beyond our current government. That is quite a dangerous reality.

It means that even the becalmed British middle classes, who seem to have been able to put up with the deaths of tens of thousands, the deepest recession in Europe and plenty more besides, might just decide that the government incompetence and indifference to the social injustice exposed in recent days, and the effect it has on their children and grandchildren, is the moment to start to get properly angry.

My three children are all through the exam phase of their lives, thank God, so our family holiday was less stressful this year than many in the past. But if I did have kids harmed by this farce/fiasco/shambles, never mind Germany, I would be going very French in my response. Polite, quiet, seething rage has had its day.

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