Old Hatters is given a Blunketting

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore on the clash of the Titans

Was it the idealist versus the pragmatist? Old Labour versus New? A spat between foodie and puritan? Or, simply, a falling-out between Sheffield Wednesday fans?

Whatever the cause, the newspapers agreed that last week's dispute at the Labour conference between Roy Hattersley, keeper of the party's comprehensive conscience, and David Blunkett, its education spokesman, was marked by unusual venom.

According to The Times, Mr Blunkett had told his friends he wanted to "have it out with Roy". And, after Mr Hattersley had attacked the party's policy on grant-maintained schools, have it out with him he did. "If I am angry," he said, "it is because those who do not come up with solutions should not turn on those who have."

The effect on the former deputy leader of the party was traumatic. For Mr Blunkett's brutal put-down followed the first standing ovation Mr Hattersley had ever won for his remarks at a party conference.

So unwonted was the acclaim that he was at first unsure what was happening. "An unlikely demagogue, the famous essayist stood, bemused," wrote Matthew Parris of The Times. "A strange sound assailed those fleshy ears. They were cheering. Cheering him. They were standing up! Maybe they wanted to lynch him? . . ."

When Mr Hattersley realised the truth and acknowledged the cheers, the scene recalled "Wind in the Willows when Toad of Toad Hall becomes the hero of the ferrets and weasels," Mr Parris wrote.

Then came the put-down, and Mr Hattersley's jowly face started to fall. After it was all over, he wept on the shoulder of John Rentoul of The Independent. He "hated" the "trauma" of his new-found role as conference darling of the rebellious left, he confided to Mr Rentoul. Like the Queen Mother in 1936, he had hoped to spend the rest of his life in comfortable obscurity. (But would he suit her hats?) As Simon Hoggart of the Guardian pointed out, the politics of the HattersleyBlunkett confrontation were mildly puzzling. After all, Mr Hattersley has always belonged on the right wing of the party: it is just that the party has rushed right past him. "The notion that the Labour party conference would one day stamp, cheer and whistle its support for one of the Daily Mail's most senior political writers would have seemed bizarre even a year ago," Mr Hoggart wrote.

Oh, those pieces in right-wing papers. The Daily Mirror made Mr Hattersley suffer for them. "It was little short of a miracle that Roy Hattersley found time to address Labour's conference yesterday," they sneered. "The former deputy leader is so busy writing for Tory newspapers and broadcasting, you could be forgiven for thinking politics plays no part in his life now."

(The Daily Mirror could not know that Sir David English, chairman of Associated Newspapers, would announce the very next day that his group, including the Daily Mail, might well support Mr Blair at the next election. ) But Mr Hattersley does not just write for the Mail. He has long had a slot in the Guardian, where his subjects range from dewy-eyed accounts of his youth to general cultural issues. Perhaps that explains why that paper, in its leader, was kinder to him than some others.

Under the heading "backbench rebel with a cause", it told him to keep up the pressure on opted-out schools. The conflict he had generated was "vibrant and visceral, but necessary", it said. The framework of Labour's policy on opted-out schools was right but it needed "a critic of Hattersley's weight" to ensure the details conformed to the principles. And it ended: "Keep snapping Roy. Labour has never had a school admissions policy but will need one now."

Hugo Young, the Guardian's political commentator, had noticed that Mr Hattersley's assault on party policy went unanswered by all speakers except the platform. Not one speaker from the floor spoke against abolition of grant-maintained schools, which is what Hattersley was demanding. "It was as if this was an embarrassment visited on the party by the leader, about which the least said the better."

The party was speaking with two different tones of voice, Mr Young wrote. One, addressed to the party, was romantically committed to an equal society and regarded differential schooling as the worst of all worlds. The other, addressed to the wider world, spoke for local choice and parental power. And the young country Mr Blair had talked about in his leader's speech would be more interested in excellence than equality.

As if to back up his words, young Andrew Marr of the Independent plumped for the Blunkett approach. Roy Hattersley was speaking for Labour's historical egalitarianism, while Blunkett spoke as a parent who had two children at a comprehensive school and knew the reality, he said.

"For a fierce argument or a well-made sentence, there is no politician more valuable than Roy Hattersley," Mr Marr concluded. "But as an education secretary, I'd go for the angry parent any day."

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