Last week, a friend was complaining to me that some people had unrealistic expectations of new Labour and would not be satisfied whatever the government did. She meant me, but I don't think she was right. I have pitifully low expectations of everything. For me, the glass is half empty, there is no life after death, the universe is full of pain and suffering, and Ipswich will fail to gain promotion again this year. So what hopes did I have of new Labour?
Even so, I sometimes wonder what we are supposed to think. No one put a gun to David Blunkett's head and forced him to say, as he did five years ago to the Labour Party Conference: "Watch my lips: no selection by examination or interview under a Labour government." Last week, he told an interviewer that it was a joke. Then he corrected that, saying that he hadn't really meant that it was a joke. He had meant that it was an ironic reference to George Bush's use of the same phrase. Obviously everybody recognised that it was a quotation, but does Blunkett mean more than that? The reference was certainly ironic. Bush's "Read my lips: no new taxes" was the celebrated broken promise that contributed to his defeat by Bill Clinton. Was Blunkett subconsciously signalling that this was a pledge that was going to be broken?
In any case, Blunkett now says, in a further elaboration, that we have all misunderstood what he was saying. When he made the pledge, he did not mean "no selection". He meant "no more selection" on top of the selection we already have. He was simply making a pledge that Labour would not create any more grammar schools.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to put a lid on my own strong views about education (no selection, loads more funding - damn, sorry, the lid slipped off for a moment) and try to imagine that I am a dispassionate observer of all this. What the hell does Blunkett think he's on about? The original pledge obviously meant what it said, and could not mean anything else, so why pretend that it did not? If the policy has changed, then say so. The current situation - or policy - doesn't even make sense. If the existing grammar schools are so good that they cannot be got rid of, then why deny them to the rest of the country? Why are they good for some areas but not for others?
Last week, the parents struggling to abolish the grammar school in Ripon were soundly defeated - largely because the ballot was heavily skewed in favour of supporters of the status quo. (Ballot-rigging - why does that ring a bell?) I think it is likely that Tony Blair has determined that not a single grammar school will by abolished by new Labour; Blunkett has suggested as much. If that is so, why not tell us now, so that those poor parents can stop trudging around collecting signatures?
I understand that Max Hastings, as editor of both the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, decreed that no one was allowed to compare anything to the Nazis. It was too cheaply prejudicial. The same could be said for certain literary comparisons. Alice in Wonderland would be a good example. Another would be Animal Farm. The main character in James Thurber's children's story, The Wonderful O, has an irrational hatred of the letter O that stems from when his mother was caught in a ship's porthole ("they couldn't pull her in, so they had to push her out"). He tries to ban any word containing the letter. He admits that he can't help using O-words in speech, but maintains that he is spitting them out.
In a similar spirit, I am going to purge myself of references to Animal Farm. I hereby vow never to refer, in discussing the Labour Party, to the final sentence of the novel in which the creatures "looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which". I will never again refer to the PR pig, Squealer, and his habit of saying, when promises are betrayed: "Surely, comrades, you don't want Jones back?"
Nor in reference to Blunkett's claim that he meant "no more selection" will I ever again refer to the scene after the first animals have been executed and Muriel reads to Clover the Sixth Commandment, painted on the wall of the barn:
"'No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.' Somehow or other, the last two words had slipped out of the animals' memory."
I know the feeling.