The ‘Butler Education Act’ of 1944 named after Education Secretary ‘Rab’ Butler, established a tripartite system with secondary modern, technical and grammar schools, but very few authorities set up any technical schools. In reality the system was bipartite. After the Second World War the leadership of both the major political parties planned further reform and expansion of education. With the Labour Party’s statement issued in 1951 which endorsed comprehensive education, and the White Paper Secondary Education for All published by the Macmillan government seven years later, educational expansion was universally approved. Harold Wilson’s Labour government, elected in 1964, aimed to increase the number of teachers, end the Eleven Plus examination and introduce more comprehensive schools. They published Circular 10/65 in which Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were ‘requested to submit plans to the Secretary of State for the reorganisation of secondary education in their areas on comprehensive lines’. In Parliament the Conservatives did not wholeheartedly resist the introduction of comprehensive schools. After all, a Conservative Education Secretary, Sir Edward Boyle had commissioned the Plowden Report in 1967, which showed increased literacy among those who after 1948 had gone through comprehensive primary education and some LEAs such as Conservative-controlled Leicestershire introduced comprehensive schools in the 1950s. The attack on the attempt to force grammar schools into comprehensives was instead organised outside of Parliament, in a series of pamphlets called Black Papers.
2. The fight for education:
In 1968, Brian Cox, lecturer in English at the
3. The crisis in education:
Black Paper Two: the Crisis in Education was devoted to secondary education, with contributions from scientists such as Professor Hans Eysenck, headmasters such as Dr. Rhodes Boyson, and political dissidents from
4. Goodbye Mr Short:
After the election the attacks on the Black Papers shifted from the claim that egalitarianism in education was an instrument of equality to allegations that comprehensive education would raise standards and foster civic duty. With this in mind, a third Black Paper entitled Black Paper Three: Goodbye Mr Short was published in November 1970. Its purpose was threefold: to ‘clarify the position for the future’; to ask the Conservative government for ‘a settled policy of moderate reform’, and to address specific accusations such as that contributors to the Black Papers endorsed a return to the Eleven Plus examination. In fact, as contributor Marjorie Bremner pointed out, those who had mentioned the Eleven Plus examination had been against it. Other contributors included Rhodes Boyson and this enforced the arguments of their opponents that they were closely associated with the Conservative Government. In 1970 Boyson, Cox and Dyson met Margaret Thatcher who thanked them for their support. In 1973 their connection with the Conservative Party was further strengthened when Boyson and Cox, together with the Conservative MP Leon Britton, advocated that ‘school vouchers should be seriously considered as part of Conservative policy’. Finally, with the foundation of the Conservative fringe group the National Council for Educational Standards, Cox, Boyson and Dyson had, in the words of Clyde Chitty, created a situation in education where ‘the Old Right had given way to the New’. The idea of greater parental participation in education encapsulated in the school voucher scheme was intended to be a suggestion of how the Conservative government could reform education. It became the main argument in a new Black Paper, published when the Labour Party had won the two 1974 general elections.
5. Black Paper 1975:
Cox and Boyson, who in 1974 had been elected Conservative MP for Brent North in
‘their case is persuasive’.
6. Black Paper 1977:
In 1976 when James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister he reintroduced education as an important political issue. It was decided he should give a speech on education after a foundation-stone-laying ceremony at
In 1970 supporters of the comprehensive school such as Caroline Benn and Brian Simon attributed some of its apparent failure to the
The Black Papers provided the Conservatives under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher with the argument that comprehensive schools led to the erosion of standards to underpin the criticisms of the ‘permissive society’. It inspired New Labour to adopt their core argument of academic independence with ‘the idea of independent non-fee-paying state schools’. They did not advocate grammar schools but ‘in every other respect we broke with the traditional comprehensive state school’ according to Tony Blair. Philip Brown defined it, to increase the extent of ‘parentocracy’ in secondary education. During the Brown administration, the policy was readopted by the Conservatives and modelled on the so-called ‘free school system’ in Sweden though when in government the Conservatives had introduced the National Curriculum, which eroded those academic freedoms they had set out to defend. So the Black Papers did not succeed in their initial aim of challenging educational expansion when it was carried out at the expense of excellence in education, as symbolised by the grammar school and academic independence. However, they did challenge educational expansion when, according to Edward Short, they provided ‘a frenzied defence of the undemocratic status quo’. In the 1970s their argument was enforced by a genuine parental concern fuelled by examples where progressive education had led to academic disintegration. Assisted by the economic crisis of the 1970s, they contributed to a realignment of ideas that was one aspect of the notion of ‘
A review of:
Francis Beckett (ed.): The Prime Ministers Who Never Were
Biteback 2011 £14.99
Counter-factual history has been popular for some time, possibly because there is less history being taught and because we all like to fantasise. This collection of fourteen highly entertaining essays is the latest in that genre and to my certain knowledge there is at least one more in the pipeline.
Counter-factuals are useful in many ways; they are the equivalent of control experiments in science except that one cannot actually change the outcome merely understand it better. One takes an important turning point in history and changes one detail that might have developed otherwise, then studies the effect. Quite often there is no difference – the particular detail turns out not to have been of all-engrossing importance. At other times one can see that history could so easily have gone another way.
There are rules about counter-factuals, though. There is no point in writing about anything but real turning points; the counterfactual has to be credible; and the outcome has to be based on real historical knowledge and not be simply wishful thinking. Sadly, the little tome, entertaining though it is, falls down on almost all of those.
In the first place who the Prime Minister is rarely makes overwhelming difference to events. Some small difference, maybe, but overwhelming no. There are exceptions: had it been one of the Tory wets who had become party leader in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979, things would probably have gone very differently internally and externally. Similarly, had Lord Halifax accepted the Premiership in 1940, things would probably have gone differently. As it happens, I am not sure about that, though most historians, starting with John Charmley, think so. Would
As for the other Prime Minister who Never Were, the essays are pure fantasy. Ten out of fourteen are about Labour possibles (or wannabes), which, in itself indicates that this is not true counter-factual but more of the “don’t I wish” school of history. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had more Labour governments or, at least, a Democratic Centralist Party, created by Rab Butler, in power for most of the twentieth century? That is not true counter-factual history.
The Prime Ministers who never became that did not for the most part because they did not actually have what it takes. Austen Chamberlain and Rab Butler, two of the Conservatives (the other two being Halifax and Tebbit), were not near misses. They would both have had to be completely different personalities to have grabbed the historic possibilities. Interestingly, there is no essay about Curzon who was a real “contender” unlike Austen Chamberlain.
Of the ten Labour possibilities, Neil Kinnock actually lost an election and not particularly narrowly; Michael Foot could not have become Prime Minister in a million years; John Smith, having contributed handsomely to the Labour defeat in 1992, was unlikely to win afterwards; and Hugh Gaitskell would, as almost everyone knows, have lost in 1964 as he had done several times previously. After all, even new broom Harold Wilson barely managed to win. A much more interesting counter-factual would have been a discussion of Sir Alec Douglas-Home winning the 1964 election, which would have been a real possibility and would have made a great deal of difference.