We are going to overtake Germany. Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, said so this morning. It was the most striking line in his speech.
For he faced, before he spoke, a tricky question. How does one bring new life to a worthy and important subject – inferiority in technical education – which British politicians have been worrying about for well over a century?
Boris Johnson would know how to it. As Mayor of London, the humdrum details of municipal government were transmuted into a drama starring himself as the genius who was inspiring people to build the new sewer and the new bus, and indeed the new airport if only the Treasury and the Department of Transport were not so unimaginative.
Few other ministers know how to impart excitement to such tasks. Williamson decided to do so by stepping forward as the man who would at last remove the inferiority complex from which Britons have suffered since the late 19th century when contemplating the wonders of German technical education.
These pledges have to be finely calibrated. Tell people you will tranform everything by the middle of next week and they will not believe you. But offer them too distant a completion date and they may start to impugn your drive, ambition and fitness for high office.
Williamson steered a middle course, choosing a date when most of those in the hall could hope to be still alive, but one when he himself could hope no longer to be serving as Education Secretary:
“Today I am setting a new ambition over the next decade with an aim to overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029.”
Conscious, perhaps, that these words would not convince everyone, he went on:
“We do not always beat Germany at football but on this we most certainly will.”
And in order to remove any lingering doubt, he added that he will establish “an expert Skills and Productivity Board” which will “provide strategic advice on the skills and qualifications we need”.
Williamson is part of a pattern at this conference: the harnessing of patriotism to the attainment of great national goals by this Conservative government, which can be trusted to cherish great national institutions.
So Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had declared earlier that “we have a deep and solemn responsibility to steer our beloved country through these troubled times”, and said the single most important thing on the doorstep was to “show and communicate that we love the NHS”.
Worthy social reform cannot always be made entertaining, but it can always be made a cause for national pride.