Hugh Gault says stick to the politics not personalities on private education
What do Stafford Cripps, Hugh Gaitskell, Geoffrey Howe, Willie Whitelaw and Rishi Sunak have in common? Apart, that is, from the obvious observation that all were or are leading politicians, the first two in Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour cabinet and the last three in Conservative cabinets. Howe and Whitelaw will be forever associated with Thatcher – Howe as her first Chancellor of the Exchequer and then her foreign secretary. Cripps, Gaitskell and Sunak have been Chancellor too, but, much as she depended on Whitelaw’s guidance as home secretary and her deputy prime minister, not even Thatcher would have considered Whitelaw for the Treasury. Nor had he ever aspired to it. One of Whitelaw’s political strengths was that he knew his limitations.
Although Cripps won a scholarship to Oxford University in 1907, he never took it up because he had been approached in the interim by the head of the chemistry department at University College London and preferred to study there. Gaitskell and Sunak did attend Oxford University, both studying that mainstay for the budding politician, PPE (politics, philosophy and economics), and both graduating with first-class degrees. Howe and Whitelaw were at Cambridge University – “the other place”, as it is sometimes called – Howe graduating in law, and Whitelaw studying history initially and then law. Howe had been chair of the student Conservative Association; Whitelaw was more often found on the golf course. A clue to their similarity comes in Sir Keir Starmer’s attack on the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s Questions on 28th November 2022: “a pointed and personal attack”, as the Guardian reported it.
Starmer was surely right to identify the inequitable tax breaks for public (independent) schools, resulting from their charitable and VAT-exempt status. (See my review of Darren McGarvey’s The Social Distance Between Us in Chartist Nov/Dec 2022 and Trevor Fisher’s follow up.) Whether he was also right to link this to Sunak himself and the school he attended is another matter. There are several reasons why this may have been inappropriate.
Many people will have heard it as a personal attack and miss the wider point about policy, both today, when state schools and academies are struggling to meet their energy and staffing costs, and tomorrow, when a Labour government might put state and public schools on an equal footing. A personal attack (whether actual or just perceived as such) is abhorred by many people and an open goal for conservative writers, especially when you have said, as Starmer has, that he would eschew personality politics for policy debate and argument. Lloyd Evans, for example, took exactly this line in the Spectator on 30 November 2022.
Not surprisingly, this was also how Sunak interpreted Starmer’s point at the time: “Whenever he attacks me about where I went to school, he is attacking the hard work and aspiration of millions.” Sunak went on to assert that Starmer was ruling out “opportunity” as well as “hard work” and “aspiration”. In effect, Starmer had enabled Sunak to claim that under Labour, ‘social mobility’ would be ruled out. Of course, the differentiation that Starmer was seeking to highlight was ‘opportunity for all’, or at least ‘for the many not the few’.
Nevertheless, the issue had been raised in a clumsy way that let the Conservative Prime Minister off the hook. Rather than a key issue of policy being debated in a serious fashion, resentment was the order of the day. The policy point was lost. In going to Davos less than two months later to sell Labour to potential investors and the well-connected, was Starmer hoping that the storm would be forgotten? Money talks in US education at least as much as in the UK, and, while verbal support would be nice, written support in the media would be better, and financial support would be best of all. It cannot be assumed that this backing will be forthcoming, and certainly not unless it is clear that the winner will be Labour. At the moment, that is far from certain, even given the heady opinion poll lead. Polls have been wrong before, and the only way to deliver in an election is to build political purpose, trust and leadership that people believe in.
Labour seems a long way from that at present, with its vague promises of ‘reform’ in public services and what can be portrayed as attacks on individual members of the government. Another reason for not attacking Sunak’s Winchester schooling is that this was also where Stafford Cripps and the other four politicians were educated, all having won their place by examination and several with the financial support of a scholarship that made it possible. Cripps might be too left-wing for the current Labour leadership, but Gaitskell has provided a model for both Blair and Starmer. Whitelaw might be too closely associated with Thatcher, as was Howe in the early 1980s, but Whitelaw was always perceived as an honest broker and man of principle. He resigned from Thatcher’s government for health reasons in 1988. Howe was a more malleable character, but his reputation now rests on his lengthy and devastating resignation speech in the Commons in November 1990. This led Michael Heseltine to challenge Thatcher for the leadership, and shortly afterwards, the Tory grandees despatched Thatcher as ruthlessly as the current ones did Truss in 2022.