Blair's lesson in compromise

Compromise is a curious creature. In private life it suggests maturity, a willingness to concede for the sake of harmony. In business and diplomacy it can be ambiguous. In politics, particularly British politics, it connotes weakness, and that simply won't do. Thus when Margaret Thatcher gave ground - as she did many more times than she might care to remember - she made sure she was portrayed as doing anything but. "You turn if you want to; the lady's not for turning." Tony Blair has followed in her footsteps: "I can only go one way. I've not got a reverse gear."

The latest incarnation of the "strong leader" has indicated that he is prepared to go down fighting for his schools bill. His choice of rallying cry is at least consistent. For a decade Blair has seen improving educational performance as the key to unlocking Britain's potential. His reforms of primary schools, while criticised as overly prescriptive, have delivered tangible improvements. His shake-up of university funding has been controversial, but as the New Statesman pointed out in the past, at least it had some progressive/redistributive intent - not that the government would admit it.

Apart from the limited introduction of city academies and specialist schools, the secondary sector remained largely untouched. As money poured in and results (a crude but now indispensable barometer) failed to improve, so the Prime Minister's frustration grew. Be bold, he told his advisers: shake it up and, more to the point, be seen to shake it up.

There is, it must be said, much to commend in last year's white paper that will shortly be presented to parliament as legislation. Who could possibly argue with the key messages as set out on the Labour Party website, that parents should have a say in how schools are run, that tuition should be tailored to the needs of the individual child, that money should be targeted for extra maths and English teaching for the most underperforming pupils?

And yet this Education Bill, as it stands, is both unimaginative and provocative. This is because Blair has played politics rather than listened. A sensible debate should revolve around the "how" as much as the "why" or "whether". Greater autonomy for schools and the role of local educa-tion authorities are legitimate areas for discussion. Headteachers should surely be given as much independence as can be reconciled with a community's needs. A top-performing state school can positively influence others in the area, as long as resources and talents are not being diverted unfairly towards it. Ultimately, however, what matters most for the good of society is improving the life chances of the millions of pupils without pushy parents.

There is some common ground between advocates and detractors of the reforms; there should be potential for agreement. The Prime Minister's more adept advisers dismiss talk of a fight, but even as they do so their boss boasts of his "high-wire" act. More than his massed ranks of opponents, Blair appears to relish the impending confrontation, perhaps the denouement of his battle against a party he has understood little and respected even less. It is still possible for wise counsel to prevail, for that dreaded compromise to be sought, for the sake of the party he is in danger of tearing apart.

Knave or dissembler?

See no evil, hear no evil. This has been the Prime Minister's mantra whenever challenged over the unseemlier parts of his relationship with George W Bush. When the Americans reneged on their commitment to the road map setting out a new course for Israel and Palestine, he brushed over it. When intelligence indicated, even before the Iraq war, that there might be no weapons of mass destruction after all, he would not hear it. When soldiers were found to have abused Iraqis in their custody, Blair suggested that this should not affect the big picture. Perhaps the most wretched example of Tony Blair's professed information lapses has been on the question of rendition - the illegal seizure by the US authorities of individuals around the world, often taking them to countries with long histories of torture.

The revelations in last week's New Statesman about the British government's cover-up have reverberated around the world. The Council of Europe's special investigator, the Swiss senator Dick Marty, contacted the NS just as his findings were going to press to request that the British government documents be incorporated. Unveiling his interim report on 24 January, Marty said it was highly likely that European governments knew what the US had been doing.

Blair is exposed. If he knew about the scale of renditions, and the use of UK airports, then he should have come clean. If he did not know, then he should have done. After all, what is the point of a special friend if he withholds information from you at will? Either way, the PM has form. His utterances over WMDs showed a flexible approach to the truth. More damaging still has been his inability to tease out information from the White House. From the moment Bush announced his "axis of evil" in January 2003 without telling Britain first, Blair has sought to catch up. The Prime Minister has shown himself either a knave or a dissembler in crucial areas of foreign policy. It is a dispiriting legacy.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, A new sort of superpower