Will blair avoid the same mistakes?

11th October 1996 at 01:00
A J P Taylor famously remarked that historians learn from the mistakes of the past how to make new mistakes. The question this interview raised is whether politicians can learn from the mistakes of the past how to avoid them altogether.

There is, after all, a striking parallel between James Callaghan and Tony Blair. Both claim a strong personal mission to raise standards and widen educational opportunity for all. I have no doubt that both are genuine in this commitment.

But look what happened to Callaghan's commitment once in government; resistance from civil servants, defensiveness from teachers and - overwhelmingly - the sense of being simultaneously engulfed by economic problems and buried by the politics of devolution.

Imagine Prime Minister Blair, should he be elected, in say 1998 or 1999. Teachers are anxious about change as they seek a break after a decade of unrelenting reform; a debate about the single European currency overshadows everthing; there are tortuous parliamentary sessions on devolution: the scenario is all too imaginable. In such circumstances, how would Blair ensure that his three main priorities for government remain, as he put it last week, "education, education and education"?

Surely, there are lessons from the Callaghan era about how he might sustain his commitment through the inevitable tumult of office. First, Blair would need to give the Department for Education and Employment real status in Whitehall; second, he would need to appoint a minister of courage and commitment (someone like David Blunkett); third, he would need to continue to place education at the heart of his overall project in a way that prime ministers simply didn't before the Callaghan era; and finally, of course, he should hope that at the end of one term he is re-elected for another.

Simple really.

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