Speaking of what you may not have read, among other journals my household takes the Church Times. My co-inmate, who may be reasonably expected to value this organ of the Church of England, curses it roundly and reliably every time it assaults the letterbox, demanding of the heavens why he is expected to read such drivel. Me, I like the cartoons, the minor gossip and reading just how badly church people can behave to one another when they forget themselves. One article this week looked at values having replaced religion in binding people together. That’s fine when the values are such as equality, justice, accountability, kindness and honesty – but what if the values are self-referential, are about ‘living your best life’ or similar?
Watching the sorry spectacle of current parliamentary politics, it occurs to me that the former PM must have really wanted to be PM. Perhaps she thought she deserved it. Perhaps they all did, all the ministers and who’ve come and gone recently. Perhaps they wanted their hour on the stage, their soundbite moment. Perhaps refusing to talk to the OBR about policies already shared over champagne by the super-rich, or dreaming of planes to Rwanda, or bullying other adults in the lobby queue, or spouting crude tropes about the wokerati or taxis, North London and the BBC were so exciting, so life-enhancing that subsequent ignominy will be worth it? The tale of an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Most of us in the public sector would prefer a better résumé.
Two men present themselves to my mind’s eye. One is the former PM, at whose feet much of the blame for the collapse of behaviour in public office must lie. The second is the Secretary of State for Education, Kit Malthouse. He chose to characterise school and college leaders as ‘hanging on to mediocrity’ and needing ‘constant attention and constant pressure’ to ‘drive it forward’. At least we know where he stands, but upon what evidence does he erect this calumny? I expect he believes that everyone outside the privileged bubble is necessarily mediocre and that all we need is a good shake so that we can be thrustingly excellent like…… Like who, exactly? Like the private schools whose results mysteriously dropped by 40% now that exams are back? Like Tory MPs?
If I wasn’t too mediocre to write a piece on values and virtues, I’d start with the hollowing-out of public life when assertion is the key performance indicator. That what enables the party of law and order to starve the police and the courts of money, the party of levelling-up to give tax relief to the super-rich. Twenty years ago we smarted under deliverance as a political mechanism, where measurement seemed to be more important than content, but that looks like responsible government now. At least politicians were trying to do something rather than just be someone.
And so we need to be really careful about how we teach children to be in schools. Innocent aspirational slogans like ‘Be the best you can be’ or irritating reminders to ‘Follow your dreams’ really won’t do. I’ve ranted at length about schools adopting canonical verse from If to Invictus and what that might mean for humanity, captain of my soul and all that. Self-actualisation is laudable as long as it is not at others’ expense. Our skills must be put to the public service and the common good. Kindness, fairness, honesty, respect and optimism are more important than trampling your neighbour because you‘re worth it.
We had 1525 people through the doors last night for post-16 open night. Everyone one of those young people had hopes and dreams. We’ll try to help as many we can get the qualifications that should open doors, if the vested interests of the elite don’t hold them shut, and if they can afford to eat while studying. Over the years, I’ve met young people who were entirely self-centred at the end of year 13, but they were my failures and they are few. Most of them are fired with the passion to change the world for the better. Now my fear is that exhortations to do good and serve humanity look hopelessly old-fashioned. I tell children that they could be Prime Minister – but please, not like these people.
Ladies on the bridge, over to you.