What I should have said to Sir Keith Joseph

14th September 2001 at 01:00
as a young reporter, I once took Sir Keith Joseph out to lunch. Then education secretary, he was reputed to be the intellectual powerhouse behind Mrs Thatcher's first government, ever-willing to think the unthinkable.

His cherished belief was that all schools should be independent operators in a completely free market, competing with each other for pupils. The best would thrive, and the worst would close. Standards would rocket skyward. "Look around you," he said, sweeping his magisterial gaze across the assembled well-heeled diners. "This is a good restaurant, and it's full - because it's giving people what they want. If it were a bad restaurant, it would go out of business."

Alas, he said, his vision could never come to pass, because education was, regrettably, compulsory. A true market was impossible unless people had the freedom not to buy any of the goods on offer, and parents did not have that choice.

It had a kind of mad logic, although it completely omitted any notion of the public good or what would happen to the children in the areas where schools "went out of business". I argued about the duty of the nation to educate all its citizens, but foundered on his absolute conviction that "the state" was the enemy of individual freedom.

But what I much regret not pointing out to him - because I didn't think of it at the time - was that, even within its own strange universe, his theory did not work. One thing we are not short of in this country is really bad restaurants. And, the classy one we were eating in had closed within the year.

That was 20 years ago, and much has changed, but not, it seems, government's starry-eyed attitude to the private sector. Could the Prime Minister be pinning his faith on more privatisation as a remedy for the weaknesses of the public sector because he has no more shots left? Having promised "reform", he doesn't know what else to offer.

From this point of view, the row over the collapse of Marconi, and the huge pay-off for its discredited chief executive came at a God-given moment for the trade unions. Never forget that much of the movement of the Stock Market is governed by the interaction of those eternal emotions, fear and greed. For the first time since Mrs Thatcher came to power, we have heard words such as "morality", "virtue" and "the public good" in relation to the public sector.

One of the elements which corrupted the left in the 1970s was its obsessive focus on means rather than ends. There were politically acceptable ways of doing things and politically unacceptable ways, and these became more important than the actual outcomes for the people the public sector was supposed to be serving. The welfare state became seen as "them" rather than "us". At the same time, powerful trade unions began to symbolise the sort of self-seeking and irresponsible behaviour which we now associate with private sector fat cats.

No one wants to go back to those times. But we do need to reacquaint ourselves with the idea that outcomes themselves can be affected by the means used to achieve them. The private sector may sometimes be more efficient and effective. But even if it is, ministers must face up to the fact that using it to excess will have a corrosive effect on society.

The Government bleats about the decay of community, but if everything is for sale, people will only do things for money. Simply handing public problems over to the private sector is no substitute for a tough intellectual analysis of what has gone wrong, and how it can be remedied. What else are those bright young advisers being paid for?

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