Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. William Gladstone was his own Chancellor. If Tony Blair enters Downing Street, he should appoint himself Education Secretaryby / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Tony Blair should take two posts in the next Labour government: prime minister and Secretary of State for Education.
This may sound nonsensical. After all, education is only one of the challenges facing Britain; to tackle it, Tony Blair no more needs to be Education Secretary than Margaret Thatcher needed to be Employment Secretary to take on the unions. How could a prime minister possibly devote himself to one issue at the expense of all others? How could he ignore economic and foreign issues-issues which seal the fate of governments? And anyway, wouldn’t it be unconstitutional? Even if it wouldn’t be, should the prime minister really spend his time deciding the fate of village primary schools?
The constitutional and practical objections-neither of them of much consequence-will be addressed later. Yet there is no denying that the proposal involves a strategic change in the role of the prime minister. That is its rationale. Without such a change, any Blair premiership is likely to prove as unfocused and ultimately unfruitful as those of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.
The starting point is to appreciate the prime ministerial paradox: that although ultimately responsible for almost everything, the prime minister is in direct control of almost nothing. Put differently, the prime minister is the public face of the government, personalising its objectives and aspirations; yet as chief executive he does not have a huge amount to do.
No. 10 is, of course, a hive of frenetic activity, yet most of it is self-imposed. There is a government to be appointed and a Cabinet to chair. There are meetings, Prime Minister’s Questions, and periodic speeches, summits and crises. But there is no department to run, and for about half a typical working week (more during parliamentary recesses) the prime minister does what he chooses to do. Or not to do, as often appears to be the case with John Major-not remotely a workaholic.
In his memoirs, Callaghan recalls that after appointing his government: “I sat back and realised I had nothing to do. Ministers were busy with their departmental work; the telephone did not ring for, generally speaking, people do not telephone the prime minister… my next appointment seemed to be a meeting of the Cabinet in two days’ time.”
Uniquely among post-war prime ministers, Callaghan had held all three of the other principal offices of state. This is his verdict: “The workload was greater both as Chancellor and as Foreign Secretary. To a large extent the prime minister makes his own pace. It is the prime minister himself who takes the initiatives, who pokes about where he chooses and creates his own waves. Ideally he should keep enough time to stand back a little from the Cabinet’s day-to-day work, to keep in touch with parliamentary and outside opinion, and to view the scene as a whole, knowing full well that periods of crisis will occur when this will be impossible.”
Choice is the recurring theme. Prime ministers choose their sphere; and their choice sets the direction and tone for the government as a whole. In practice, modern prime ministers invariably choose to act as their own Foreign Secretary, while intermittently trying to be Chancellor too. This is partly a matter of tradition and self-image, and partly of trust, jealousy and crises. All prime ministers want to go down as international statesmen, and there is no easier way to create an air of importance-and plenty of photo opportunities-than the effort to become one. By virtue of their office they must take part in key events and decisions, whether it be the European Council or a cut in interest rates. They must also take control when foreign or economic crises loom. Once involved, and well-briefed, it is difficult to let go. Furthermore, the Foreign Secretary and/or Chancellor is often a latent threat, if not an overt rival to the prime minster; it is never wise to give either of them too free a rein.
This is not to say that prime ministers devote no effort elsewhere. Harold Wilson set up the Open University; Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher found time for the unions; while the indefatigable Thatcher also managed privatisation, the poll tax and Victorian values. Even John Major has chosen, in effect, to become his own Northern Ireland Secretary. He is earning a distinguished place in the history books because of it.
So why should Blair choose to be Education Secretary? In the first place, to announce a decisive break with tradition. The next Labour government is not about asserting Pax Britannica; nor is it about magical economic cures procured by endless manipulation of the Treasury “levers.” The Foreign Office and Treasury will need competent administration, particularly in their European dimensions. But if Labour is to make a mark, it must set as its goal the painstaking task of national renewal from the bottom up. More than anything that means better schools, fewer teenage failures and drop-outs, a working welfare state, and higher personal aspirations and senses of responsibility.
Of these, education is where Blair can make most impact if he so chooses. Dramatic change is already under way, as witnessed in the rapid growth in staying-on rates and higher education. Yet opportunities remain grossly uneven, performance is deplorable in much of the state sector, and the public policy framework remains grossly inadequate. Consider the impact on the media and public if the prime minister were to take personal charge. In 1976 Callaghan transformed the education debate with a celebrated speech at Ruskin College, Oxford. How much more could be achieved by a prime minister prepared to take the lead in the task of educational improvement.
Take just one issue: the private school sector. Britain has western Europe’s most class-riven school system. Public schools educate a mere 8 per cent of Britain’s children, yet their pupils go on to occupy half the places at the country’s best universities and to provide most of its rising elite.
What will Labour do? On present form, nothing but a few negative gestures. Yet reducing the degree of educational segregation by wealth, while preserving and spreading the excellence in the private sector, is surely one of the great tasks for those seeking an integrated society. Success will require efforts of persuasion and constructive thinking worthy of the best Foreign Office mandarins. There would be other ministers, including one in the Cabinet, to do most of the paperwork, but an overhaul is unlikely without prime ministerial leadership.
And there are no constitutional barriers. Until the Second World War it was common for the premiership to be combined with another office. For most of his 13 years in Downing Street Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. At critical periods William Gladstone served as his own Chancellor. Churchill, Asquith, and MacDonald all at times combined No. 10 with departmental offices.
Governments spend more money now, but it is a modern conceit that senior ministers have more to do. Salisbury took the Foreign Office because he did not trust anyone to manage Britain’s massive imperial commitments. Gladstone appointed himself Chancellor to mastermind tax reform and ensure its passage through Parliament, which then required great efforts of persuasion.
Blair needs a Gladstonian sense of mission, and Gladstone’s capacity to focus on, and ameliorate, the critical social problems of the age. He could start by making education his personal responsibility.