One of the key reasons why New Labour has been successful for so long is its ability to destroy or marginalise opponents. The techniques used are ruthless. Those who challenge government orthodoxy are smeared, discredited and rubbished as liars. Their motives are questioned and their characters assassinated.
Normally, in the quotidian frenzy of political debate, there is no time to examine how ministers construct their arguments. Life moves on, the smears and falsehoods remain hanging in the air. But this month, while Westminster is quiet and the main characters absent, there is an ideal opportunity for a leisurely examination of New Labour at work. The last week has provided two interesting case studies. One involves the claim made by Denis MacShane, minister for Europe, that Tory Eurosceptics are guilty of fostering racism. The second concerns the schools minister David Miliband’s eye-catching assertion that A-level standards are as high as ever.
First Miliband. It is interesting to note that he kicked off his speech last Tuesday not by making a reasoned argument, but by questioning the good faith of his opponents. He accused those who argue that A-level standards have fallen of wanting ‘to defend the old order of things’, and of putting up ‘barriers of birth not merit to the rise of hard-working pupils from all over the country’.
Miliband’s method of argument is disgraceful. The wave of protests against low standards in Britain’s schools had not come from the tiny section of British society — supposing it still exists in any meaningful way — which continues to depend on so-called ‘barriers of birth’. The complaints about falling standards in schools have come from other quarters: employers, universities, and some of the examiners themselves.
An important series of articles in the Economist has shown how a growing number of universities now regard A-levels as such a worthless measure of achievement that they are searching for other methods of assessing potential students. In medical and veterinary science, six of the top faculties in Britain now select through a special biomedical admissions test. Eight law schools are now following suit, with a legal aptitude test. Other universities have simply given up on A-levels as a method of sorting out bright students. Leeds Metropolitan and Huddersfield universities, which have 20 applicants for each physiotherapy place, just choose successful applicants randomly from those with the right grades.
Miliband believes that this oversupply reflects a heroic improvement in teaching standards in the last 20 years. All the evidence suggests the exact opposite. This week a pamphlet published by the Bow Group showed that nine out of ten academics believe A-levels have been devalued. A remarkable recent survey by Coventry university showed that those with a B grade in maths have the same or possibly worse capacity as those who actually failed the exam in 1991. Reports from employers echo these concerns. The Economist has revealed how the Ministry of Defence has been obliged to start a large remedial maths programme after it emerged that soldiers with a C pass at GCSE are often baffled by common fractions. Listen to this from the Engineering Council: ‘There is strong evidence from diagnostic tests of a steady decline over the past decade of fluency in basic mathematical skills and of the level of mathematical preparation of students accepted on to degree courses.’
One could go on and on. It is intellectually dishonest of Miliband to ignore the massive amount of evidence showing that A-level standards have fallen sharply in the last 20 years, and utterly shameless to misrepresent those who point this out as defenders of social privilege. Miliband’s refusal to acknowledge there is a problem can only lead directly to false policy prescriptions, and in the long term do great damage. His speech flies in complete defiance of independent research, academic opinion and common sense. I don’t think that Miliband is consciously lying. My guess is he has very little understanding of the world outside Whitehall. He is an intellectual who lives a tidy, well-ordered life dedicated to targets and statistics, animated in part by a sub-Marxist ideology of central control. In his tightly defined world, standards go up and up, and anyone who claims otherwise is a ‘myth-maker’, a reactionary and a liar.
The case of Denis MacShane, Europe minister, is similar in certain respects, but more flagrant. MacShane too operates by trashing the characters and misrepresenting the motives of his opponents. Two weeks ago, during the course of an interview with the Daily Telegraph, MacShane insinuated that Eurosceptic newspapers and some Tory politicians were encouraging racism. Later he went on the Today programme to enlarge on this proposition. He called for a ‘fact-based debate’. Then he denounced the Eurosceptic press for telling monstrous lies and myths about Europe, citing in particular the case of one newspaper which had described Eastern European immigrants as a ‘murderous horde’. MacShane told Ed Stourton, the Today programme interviewer, that this sort of thing must stop.
Afterwards I consulted a database to discover which newspaper had used inflammatory language in this shameful and probably illegal way. Nothing came up, so I rang the Foreign Office news department, which promised to get back with an answer. Five minutes later, to my surprise, MacShane himself came on the line. When I asked about the ‘murderous horde’, MacShane became vague, changing the subject by citing other stories, one by the Sun journalist George Pascoe-Watson and another by Ed Heathcoat Amory in the Daily Mail, which he alleged to be false. I informed MacShane that I would warn these journalists that he was blackening their reputations behind their backs, then continued to press him about his ‘murderous horde’. MacShane started to wriggle, eventually denying that he had ever used the phrase. ‘I never said it,’ he insisted.
Once our conversation was over, I listened again to a tape of MacShane’s Today programme interview. This is what he said: ‘You remember in the winter there was all this hysteria about people from Poland and Hungary coming into the country. They were described in one of our papers as a murderous horde — a murderous horde. These are nurses and hospital workers from Poland. They are European citizens. They are paying taxes here. When is somebody going to stand up to that kind of language?’
Millions of people were listening to that Today programme interview. They heard a senior government minister make a charge of extreme gravity. He repeated it twice. Listeners were entitled to assume that he was telling the truth. In fact he had made up the quote. Government ministers nowadays talk a great deal about the need to recapture public trust in politics. But they themselves feel free to smear their opponents and distort the truth. It is a horrible way of conducting public debate. In their different ways David Miliband and Denis MacShane are bringing democratic politics into contempt.