Amid last week’s drizzle, it was a relief to be distracted by a new pre-Christmas pantomime, Know Your Place, presented free of charge by Associated Palace Productions (Westminster and St James’s) and starring those two larger-than-life cheeky chappies, Charlie Windsor and Charlie Clarke. It should run and run.
The prime minister must be delighted that something so absurd has appeared at just the right moment to help bury the bad news about the Child Support Agency (shamefully failed), the schools testing agency (shamefully failed), the survey of university standards (shamefully dumbed down) and the foxhunting fiasco (shameful).
One might almost think that Tony Blair had encouraged his education secretary and John Reid, his health secretary, to distract us with a people’s panto.
Of the two principals, Charles Windsor is a whimsical prince of contradictions, torn between seigneurial self-indulgence and a sense of public duty, devoted both to ludicrous fancy dress and genuine good works.
Surrounded by an underpaid entourage of flunkies, most of them maddened by red carpet fever, he was foolish enough to write an indiscreet memo to one employee that, if filched by another, would certainly land him in an employment tribunal — as indeed it was and has.
“What is wrong with everyone nowadays?” he wrote in exasperation. “Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their actual capabilities? This is all to do with the learning culture in schools — the child-centred learning emphasis which admits of no failure and tells people that they can all be pop stars or High Court judges or brilliant TV personalities or even infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work, effort or having natural ability. It is the result of social utopianism.”
Why this overwhelming urge to put inflammatory thought to vulnerable paper? Perhaps, deprived by destiny of the sound of his own voice, Prince Charles has become inebriated with the exuberance of his own handwriting. He is given to maddening ministers with screeds of unsolicited and probably unconstitutional advice in his own hand. Sadly, in failing to understand the limitations of his quaint constitutional role, he risks destroying it altogether.
Enter at this point the other principal, the big-bellied bruiser Charles Clarke, with a supporting chorus of excited headline writers to big him up. Despite his appearance, Clarke is a child of privilege. Like Prince Charles, he was privately educated and went to Cambridge, and he is education secretary in a government supposedly dedicated to education, yet he takes a view of education so anti-elitist that it seems positively anti-education.
It wasn’t on Clarke’s watch that the department produced an education policy document ludicrously called Excellence for All Children but he did, for instance, say: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists about for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.” His contribution last week to excellence for all was to make all schools take their “fair share” of seriously disruptive pupils.
Given Labour’s abysmal failures with education, I don’t know how any Labour education secretary can look himself in the mirror. Yet Clarke has had the effrontery to break ministerial convention to attack a member of the royal family, saying he doesn’t understand what is going on in education and calling him old-fashioned.
There are few loveable characters in this charade. Elaine Day, the angry young woman who is suing for wrongful dismissal, may well have had a miserable time in the prince’s dysfunctional household. If proven, the “inappropriate touching” of which she complains was probably the least of it. But all the same, she took without permission — the word should be “stole” — a memo written to a senior employee from his in-tray and has now made it public.
In the Croydon tribunal she said artlessly that she kept the document as “memorabilia”. Prince Charles unwisely wrote that she was so politically correct she frightened him rigid. Clearly he wasn’t frightened enough or he might have kept the cap on his fountain pen.
What Prince Charles wrote, however unpleasant in spirit and ill-judged in context, was essentially right. He did not, as many headlines have unfairly suggested, say people should know their place and should not try to rise above their station.
The schoolchildren of this country have been doubly betrayed for decades, both by collapsing standards and by ballooning expectations. It is wicked to teach children that they can all expect the moon; ability varies greatly and competition is fierce.
It is even worse to excite unrealistic expectations when children’s genuine abilities have been smothered at Britain’s disgraceful “bog standard” comprehensives and by simple illiteracy. Even Blair admits that one in four 11-year-olds is illiterate and 25% of school leavers are below standard in English and maths.
Whatever may have been wrong with old-fashioned education, at least it taught almost all children to read and write. Yet, these days, all kinds of barely literate people of average intelligence expect professional status or feel they have a right to do something “creative”, when they lack the most basic skills or any outstanding ability. They have been unforgivably misled.
It is simply wrong to say, as Clarke did on Radio 4, that “everyone has a field marshal’s baton in their knapsack”. Everyone does not. It takes a very exceptional person to make a field marshal.
John Reid suffers from the same delusion. Whatever your school or background, he said, “you have it in you, if you use your own endeavours and energies, to be almost anything in this country”. That is quite simply a dangerous lie, because it spreads so much anger and misery, when people are forced to face inexplicable disappointment.
It is a terrible misunderstanding of meritocracy — which is what Clarke and Reid imagine they support — to assume it means everyone is somehow (or could be) of equal merit, with equal success. Innate ability varies, obviously enough. Merit varies. All cannot have prizes, though all can do well in some way.
No one believes these days that anyone should be held back by some long-discredited idea of knowing your place or getting above your station. We do live in a meritocracy, imperfect though it is, and few people would wish to change that.
However, the painful truth is that meritocracy is cruel. It offers no excuses to those who don’t do well. It is even more cruel when teachers and politicians offer false encouragement based on a confusion of meritocracy with socialism.
Socialism is incompatible with meritocracy; even new Labour’s biggest bruisers can’t square that circle, not even by making fun of Prince Charles.