Learning the wrong lessons

For all the accusations of hubris, there is something lugubrious about Tony Blair's view of the human condition. The British people seem to have little sense of their place in the world beyond uncritical support for America. They have little notion of community relations beyond fear of their neighbour. And they have little confidence in their public services, even after several years of sustained investment. These issues are linked in the mind of the Prime Minister and in the conduct of our politics in the autumn of his rule.

The title "higher standards, better schools for all" suggests that the government's latest white paper on education is uncontroversial. After all, with our current rates of literacy and numeracy (better, but still low by international standards) and of truancy, inequality and social exclusion, few would be naive enough to argue that all is well in Britain's schools. Few would object to the right of parents to be involved more closely, or to the right of schools to have a strong sense of pride. The question, as ever, is how to achieve these laudable goals. Greater autonomy is one thing, independence is quite another. Any ambitious head teacher is likely to use the rules to ensure that only the most manageable children attend. Sink schools will sink further, both in the number and attainment of their intake. There is little evidence that the better-performing establishment down the road will want to be involved, except to cherry-pick the odd good pupil. Subsidised transport and "choice advisers" for poorer families may be a good idea, but they will not offset the reintroduction by stealth of the secondary modern.

Blair has given up on the 1945 settlement for delivering state health and education. He adheres to the principle of services being provided free at the point of delivery, but he is determined that the manner of that provision be changed irrevocably. For all the criticisms and obstacles, he has moved relatively quickly on the NHS and convinced himself that the rate of change in education is unacceptably slow.

Downing Street has served notice that on this issue, above all others, it is taking over. Perhaps it is no coincidence then, as several ministers admit, that the decisions of the past few weeks will be politically disastrous for Labour. As our political editor suggests on page 8, what was most striking about the cabinet meeting that discussed the education reforms is not how many ministers criticised the plans (John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon), but how few were prepared to back their colleagues.

In his eagerness to secure his "legacy", Blair has sent out the following messages on public services: much of the past eight years have been wasted; the Tories, with their grant maintained schools pre-1997, had it largely right; and that at the next general election there won't be much to choose between the main parties on the future of public services - except that the Conservatives will appear to have taken the lead on the issue. For the moment, in order to push his reforms through, Blair will be forced to rely on the Tories, whose spokesman and leadership favourite, David Cameron, has carefully positioned himself as Blair's critical lifeline. When did this last happen? Over the vote to go to war in March 2003. And education is supposed to be about learning lessons.

Understanding Israel

The very mention of Israel provokes a storm of passion. Prejudices run deep, grievances too. Critics - and they are numerous - see the country as synonymous with oppression and occupation. They elide the actions of a government with the anxieties of a people. In their use of language, they fail to take into account the particular suffering of the Jews in the 20th century. Defenders of Israel - and for all their claims to the contrary, they are powerful - often confuse criticism with anti-Semitism. Sometimes they do this to divert attention from the substance of the criticism. Sometimes they are driven by emotion. Sometimes they are right, often they are not. What unites detractors and defenders alike is usually a lack of information to support their views.

The New Statesman has consistently condemned Israel for its annexation of Palestinian territory and the brutal enforcement of its will. Equally we condemn suicide bombs and other violent attacks on Israelis, the latest of which has just claimed more lives in the town of Hadera. In the fevered world of Middle East politics, opinion is easy, facts are precious. That is why, in July 2004, we published an acclaimed special issue on Palestine under the title "Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask". This week we publish a companion issue on Israel. Our distinguished contributors range across politics, demography, international relations and culture. Inevitably they examine the policies of Ariel Sharon, the withdrawal from Gaza and the increased settler and military incursions into the West Bank. They look at the failure of the Israeli left to provide a credible opposition and wonder whether through immigration or otherwise, the hegemony of the right will ever be challenged.

Most of all, we hope readers will feel they have learnt more about a country that craves understanding and security, but whose actions against others often make its goals all the harder to achieve.

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