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2 December 2002updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Don’t quack like your silly old dad. Modernise!

It's the word of the moment, on the lips of every minister and pundit. But what does it really mean?

By Stefan Stern

Hands up all those in favour of standing in the way of progress. Nobody? OK, now put your hand up if you think that being modern, generally speaking, is a good idea. I see. So that’s 93 per cent support for modernisation. Now all we have to do is agree what it means.

When new Labour is dead, and a future Gunther von Hagens (of “Body Worlds” fame) performs an autopsy on the corpse, he will find the word “modernisation” written on its heart. You can hardly get through a conversation with new Labour apparatchiks without hearing that doctors/teachers/lawyers/nurses “are going to have to modernise”. The “M” word lies at the heart of the dispute with the firefighters. As the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, says: “I think the firemen haven’t understood that modernisation is at the core of what we’re about.”

For new Labour, modernisation is the new religion, replacing socialism or social democracy. Like ex-smokers, modernisers are intolerant of those who have not yet abandoned their old ways. Yet the more they talk of modernisation, the faster we seem to confront old-fashioned problems. It will be more modern, apparently, to abolish “bog-standard” comprehensives. That used to mean selection, but that can’t be what new Labour wants because that is an old idea. Perhaps they could call the rump of schools that are not beacons or technology colleges or city academies “secondary modern”, just to indicate how modern their plans are.

It will be modern, we are led to believe, to have hospitals competing for staff and resources. This should not be confused with the 1980s Conservative policy of the internal market, which clearly cannot have been modern as it was launched nearly two decades ago. Now the firefighters are told it will be modern to work overtime, making it harder for women with children to join a service that already has too few women in it. In fact, there is nothing modern about working overtime. Annual hours contracts, like the French 1,600 hours deal (the “35-hour week”), are the modern option.

But in truth, modernisation is old hat. The desire to be new, fresh, modern, is as old as humanity itself. As Alfred Noyes wrote:

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“I don’t want to waddle like mother,
Or quack like my silly old dad.
I want to be utterly other,
And frightfully modern and mad.”

But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, the chances are it’s still a duck.

Are you a moderniser? – a quiz

1 Public sector workers

a) should be paid more and shouted at less

b) must consider new ways of working to win better pay

c) need urgent, unflinching reform

2 Inequality

a) must be fought and eradicated

b) is only one of a range of issues that has to be tackled

c) is just one of those things – get used to it!

3 The working classes

a) have been let down by their own government

b) are no longer a simple homogeneous grouping

c) deserve everything they get

4 Firefighters are

a) worth at least 20 per cent more money

b) due a rise but must embrace change

c) the Scargillite enemy within

5 The NHS

a) is socialism in action, and it works

b) is right in principle but must be improved to retain popular support

c) should be privatised, just as soon as we can find a different word for privatisation

6 Margaret Thatcher

a) has destroyed this country

b) went too far, too fast, doing more harm than good

c) really ought to consider joining us

7 Globalisation

a) damages both the planet and its poor, and will eventually kill us

b) needs checks and balances but cannot be stopped

c) is our friend

8 The rich

a) should be taxed until the pips squeak

b) have a duty to make a greater contribution to society

c) should see their wealth trickle down to everybody’s benefit

9 Margarine is

a) an abomination

b) like Charles I’s beheading, a “cruel necessity”

c) modernised butter, and therefore to be welcomed

10 Comprehensive education

a) is under attack and must be defended

b) needs reform but is right in principle

c) helps poor people, but Josh and Jemima deserve better

11 Nye Bevan

a) was one of the towering figures of 20th-century politics b) established the NHS but was not a great team player

c) is the name of that new bar in Clerkenwell, isn’t it?

12 Crime

a) will always exist, and is exacerbated by inequality

b) must be punished, but the causes of crime need careful attention, too

c) an issue that we mustn’t leave to the Tories, even if we have to bring back the birch

13 Peter Mandelson

a) simply cannot be trusted

b) achieved many things but was temperamentally unsuited to high office

c) must be brought back now

14 Trade unions

a) founded this party and remain an essential pillar of the movement

b) have come a long way but need to move further

c) Oh puh-leeeze! When will they ever learn . . . ?

15 John Smith

a) would have been a great Labour prime minister

b) would have been a great Labour prime minister

c) was leading us to a fifth consecutive defeat – the polls were wrong, on this occasion

16 Modernisation means

a) destroying everything worthwhile you’ve ever believed b) getting the balance right between existing values and necessary change

c) never having to say you’re sorry

So how modern are you?

Mostly a: you are real Labour, unreconstructed. Sorry, but you are simply not a moderniser

Mostly b: you show signs of understanding but still retain too many old Labour sentiments

Mostly c: which seat would you like next time round?