Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Sir Alistair Graham is presented as one of the heroes of our age. He is the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was originally set up by John Major as what he (Mr Major) called 'an ethical workshop called in to do running repairs'. Now Sir Alistair has lashed out at Tony Blair. 'The most fundamental thing is that Blair has betrayed himself, ' says Sir Alistair. 'He set such a high bar for people to judge him and he has fallen well below the standards he set for himself.' Then he mentions not only cash for honours, but also the Iraq war, postal voting, 'sofa government', and 'undue reliance on spin'. Many would agree with him on these points, but is it right for someone in a publicly funded position to embark on personal political attack? The Committee's remit explicitly 'excludes investigation of individual allegations of misconduct'. Could it be that Sir Alistair is cross because Mr Blair has not renewed him in his post? In the same angry interview, Sir Alistair praises Gordon Brown. He tells the Sunday Times that he has met the Chancellor four times in recent months and 'feels he is paying close attention to standards issues'. I feel that we should not be surprised if Sir Alistair were to stay in his job, or receive another one, under a Brown premiership.

Does it conform to the highest standards of ethics in public life to trail one's coat in this way? Does the ethical running repairer need a bit of servicing himself? Mr Major's decision to attack sleaze by setting up bodies like Sir Alistair's -- and Mr Blair's endorsement of that decision -- were disastrous because they externalised the moral duty incumbent on all politicians. In the end, elected representatives, unlike public servants, must regulate themselves, because the buck stops with them. The best sanctions against them are the ballot box and their consciences. As soon as you start all this 'independent scrutiny' you infantilise the politicians and make them more determined to get round the rules. You also give undeserved power to self-important, unelected, priggish bores like Sir Alistair.

If you are a parent whose child is contemplating applying to a university, you can find out more on the website of Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Click on the button marked 'Parents' and you are directed to the question, 'Why choose higher education?' There are five answers to the question. Four of them could easily be expressed as one. They all concern employment prospects. One says that higher education gives your sons and daughters 'important transferable skills', another that it can 'enhance long-term financial success', a third that it is 'an absolute must' for some vocational courses. It is also pointed out that nowadays you can mix courses to suit your preferences -- for example, art and politics.

That is all. Any suggestion that higher education might broaden your mind, deepen your reading, improve your understanding of science, history, literature, civilisation? No, not even the faintest, tiniest hint. Squeezed between egalitarianism on the one hand and utilitarian production for 'the needs of business' on the other, the life of the mind has been suffocated.

Sometimes your subliminal perception tells you more than your fully conscious mind.

I was walking down Whitehall the other day when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a man wearing a policeman's helmet. …

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