Published:

The Tory heart always has a warm place for Santa Claus. Is there a more enchanting spectacle than little children dreaming of teddy bears, dolls, toy soldiers – and writing their letters to Santa? Which parent ever wished to foreshorten the Father Christmas years? (I once saw a cartoon with a couple of eight year-olds, one saying "Of course, I don't believe either, but we must keep up the pretence for the sake of the parents".)

Especially for those of us who have no faith, the human condition requires a sauce of sentiment to make it palatable. Equally, sentimentality of duty can fortify the Tory intellect, in its unending struggle with an intractable reality. But it should always be possible to tell the difference between a child's letter to Santa Claus and a grown-up's political aspirations. Yet over the past few days, with all the talk about alternative Queen's Speeches, there has been some confusion between realism and fantasy. People who should know better have been reaching for a magic wand.

The first noteworthy example was the businessmen calling for a strategy to deliver economic growth. Had it not occurred to them that if such a strategy existed, it would long since have been implemented? There have have been politicians who enjoyed nothing more than telling hungry sheep about the price of grass. Oddly enough, two of the best examples were both Labour Chancellors: Philip Snowden and Stafford Cripps. But there is nothing sado-masochistic about David Cameron and George Osborne. They would be delighted if they could gee-up the reindeer, jingle the bells and distribute largesse all round. Alas, this is no time for presents from Lapland. Instead, the British economy is beset by midwinter Lapland weather.

Actually, that is unfair to Lapland, for the storms are coming from much further South. Again, there are those who would repel them with a magic wand; let us have an EU referendum and settle everything once and for all. The truth must be faced: of itself, a referendum would settle nothing. Would those who are calling for one be happy with Swiss or Norwegian arrangements: outside the EU, but bound by Single Market legislation which they had no hand in framing? Or would they prefer us to have nothing more to do with the EU, and rely on the WTO to protect our trading rights?

In a rational world, that might be possible. But who on earth believes that the EU lives in a rational world? Santa Claus's presents often include gold coins: chocolate with a golden wrapping. Those who allowed Greece into the Single Currency accepted the gold coins at par. They might as well have appointed Santa to head the European Central Bank. Their monetary policy would have been no worse if it had been formulated by an old gentleman wearing Father Christmas costume, in between tucking into a mince pie. The people who gave us Santa-nomics: living in a rational world? A trade war between the UK and the Eurozone would be in nobody's interests. That would not necessarily prevent one.

There are moments – many moments – when almost every Tory with red blood in his veins feels like saying be damned to the EU and all its works. But our prosperity is heavily dependent on the City, on inward investment and on trade with Europe. We have no magic wand; there is no alternative to hard thinking and diplomacy. It is impossible to see how the Eurozone can avoid a terminal crisis. Then again, some of us have been saying that for months; the sandwich-board is looking dog-eared. Even so, the end of the Euro is nearer at hand than the end of the world (one hopes). When the Euro crisis comes, opportunities will open. By exercising a combination of charm, sympathy, cooperation and ruthlessness, we may well be able to renegotiate British membership.  But there is no magic wand.

The same is true in education. Some Tories have taken to chanting "grammar schools now" in the same way as Lefties used to chant "Thatcher out". Let us return to reality.

The grammar schools used to educate a quarter of the population. Most of them did an excellent job, though it must be remembered that some of the third streams did not perform well. Given the supposed ability range, that was not acceptable. Until the 1944 (Butler) Act, the middle-middle and even lower-middle classes could buy their children's way in to a grammar school. After 1944, the eleven-plus took over. Moreover, not nearly enough was done to create technical high schools, which could have been an acceptable alternative. Instead, eleven-plus failures were faced by the secondary modern and proletarianisation: being educated alongside the likes of John Prescott. That was why the Tory party did so little to protect the grammar schools and fell in with the illusion that comprehensives would mean a grammar-school education for all. 

Now, at last, there is fundamental reform. It will include the so-called Baker-Dearing academies, which offer a high-quality vocationally and technologically based curriculum to those over fourteen. That could lead to a wholly acceptable form of educational bifurcation.

But what if the government had simply reintroduced the grammar schools? Initially, this would have been popular. All parents would have assumed that their Jack and Jill would qualify. Once three-quarters of them discovered that a letter to Santa Claus was not enough, there would have been widespread disillusion. That would have been accompanied by disruption, as existing schools were divided and new premises allocated. Most of the best teachers would have tried to work in the grammar schools, which would have done wonders for the morale of those left behind. In short, the outcome would have been chaos, disappointment and electoral disaster. There is everything to be said for allowing existing grammar schools to expand  – without losing their ethos – and some new ones to open. Overall, however, there is no realistic alternative to the Gove Act.

That is all a Tory should need to know. We are a realistic party or we are nothing. In one of the best-ever peroration passages in a party conference speech, Iain Macleod once said. "The Socialists may scheme their schemes. The Liberals may dream their dreams. We have work to do". That is still the case. As Margaret Thatcher would have reminded us, a Tory's work is never done.

Comments are closed.