Education has long been a political hot potato in Britain. For decades it has been the central issue that links national politics to the politics of the localities, the politics of class, and the politics of party. This might appear surprising in a society where over 90 percent of schoolchildren are educated in government schools, where the government controls the parameters within which private schools operate, and where there is only one private university.

In short, the state has won the battle for control of British education. Yet, this triumph has been a hollow one; the state has taken over educational provision only to find the resulting system become a source of acute dissatisfaction.

The nationalization of education was a long-term process that reflected the extension of the welfare state. The 1870 Education Act divided the country into school districts and required a certain level of education, introducing the school district in areas where existing parish provision was inadequate. The Education Act of 1918 designated 14 as the minimum age for quitting school. The Education Act of 1944 obliged every local authority to prepare a development plan for educational provision, and the Ministry of Education imposed new minimum standards in matters such as school accommodation and size.

This state control of education also put an end to the streamlining of children by ability into different schools after examination at the age of 11 (12 in Scotland). Grammar and secondary schools were replaced by comprehensive schools, a policy actively supported by the Labour government (1964-70) and further, although with less zeal, implemented under its Conservative successor (1970-74). Motivated m part by class hatred or guilt. Labour politicians regarded grammar schools as elitist and favored a more egalitarian approach. Another major shift was away from single-sex and toward mixed schooling. This was a change that took place without consultation, and that reflected the views of politically partisan “experts.”

In addition, major expansions in higher education since the 1960’s have dramatically increased the number of students and thus the graduate population as well. The number of college students from lower-income families rose considerably; nine new universities were founded between 1958-66; and the number and importance of polytechnics increased. The Robbins Report of 1963 recommended higher education for all qualified candidates, and the government responded. Students were also given free tuition, and subsidies in proportion to their parental income. The percentage of 18-year-olds entering a university in the United Kingdom rose from 4.6 in 1961 to over 30 by the mid-1990’s, by which time the polytechnics and other colleges had become universities.

These shifts in education reflected the socialization of British society and a cult of egalitarianism that is hostile to past practices and antagonistic to anything termed elitist. Educational reform became the left-wing, statist panacea of the 1960’s and 70’s, and so when Tony Blair (like Bill Clinton) makes education the ideological centerpiece of his government today, he is using widespread popular concern with educational standards to win support for more national planning. Part of the skill of both Clinton and Blair has been to transform the politics of the left from the redistribution of wealth, which is increasingly unpopular in societies made prosperous by capitalism, to policies that can tap middle-class aspirations. In essence, Blair and Clinton seek to unite the middle class and the state, and to convert both to the objectives of a transformed left. This is a far more insidious threat to conservatism than the politics of working-class identity and the traditional focus of the left. But, again, part of the skill of Blair and Clinton is that they have retained most of the old constituency.

The sentiments expressed by advocates of educational change in Britain, like their American counterparts, were and are often ugly, divisive, and self-righteous, but, more to the point, their policies do not work, either educationally or socially. Despite decades of expenditure, many British pupils continue to leave school without a secure grasp of words or numbers, which is especially troubling in an economy with few opportunities for functional illiterates, whether in industry, farming, forestry, mining, or the armed forces. The level of educational attainment by the remainder of the school population leaves much to be desired. It is particularly ironic that language skills declined as Britain became steadily more absorbed into the European Union. In 1991-92, British schools taught an average of only 0.9 languages per pupil, which ranks at the bottom of the European Union (only Portugal is worse in this regard). French is the most common foreign language studied in Britain’s secondary schools, but it was studied by only 59 percent of pupils in 1991-92; German was next at 20 percent. The comparable percentages in Ireland were 69 and 24. Indeed, according to many indicators, British schoolchildren do worse than their Continental counterparts.

State education also failed to fulfill the hopes of its supporters in the social sphere. Rising levels of crime and violence among schoolchildren, often at school, caused a public storm in 1996 when a London headmaster was stabbed to death after intervening in a brawl at the school gates. Teachers have refused to teach the increasing number of violent children—more evidence of the failure of the state system to act as a civilizing influence. In May 1997, a bright Scottish pupil committed suicide after being taunted for being smart by her dumbed down classmates.

Nor has national planning made Britain a more egalitarian society, despite decades of national control of education. Instead, social class is now in part defined by room size, and in 1996 Tony Blair’s choice of a particular state school for one of his kids led to controversy. Proximity to desirable state schools features prominently in housing sales, increasing property prices and altering the social and economic topographies of cities; attempts by educational authorities to alter school districts evoke fierce protests. Far from abolishing social divisions, then, government intervention in education has actually exacerbated them. “Leveling” has been seen as “leveling down,” something to be avoided even by those who do not seek social mobility.

Furthermore, hostility to what is perceived as elitism has been used to serve tendentious causes. For example, the current Labour government—Blair and his allies, many of them unelected “political advisors” who interfere in the Civil Service and further politicize government—with an overwhelming parliamentary majority that claims the mandate of popular support on the basis of less than half of the votes cast, uses anti-elitism as a means to typecast its opponents and oppose their viewpoints. Take Labour’s criticism of the hereditary peerage; although the remnants of the traditional ancien regime elite, hereditary peerage received fresh transfusions of merit thereafter, in the shape of new hereditary peers. In May 1997, shortly after its election, the Blair government began criticizing the socio-educational character of another autonomous and potentially hostile group, the judiciary. It was presented as overwhelmingly composed of men and the products of private schools, which to Labour signifies a necessarily anachronistic and reactionary force; indeed, all of the 26 judges appointed in 1993-94 had been to private schools and only three were women. This pattern is also found in the senators of the College of Justice in Scotland.

Tony Blair, himself, is the product of a distinguished private school and of Oxford University, both institutions being highly selective. But hypocrisy has been a central aspect of Labour’s triumph, and characteristic of Blair. Blair’s self-righteousness, combined with these attacks on other socio-educational groups, gives carte blanche to the new Labour elite. Their background is different from traditional Labour leaders, who emphasize trade and unionism. Instead, this is a leadership of affluence and social mobility, not socialism. The language of equality serves to foster opportunity for the few, not the many: the traditional left-wing criticism of conservatives can now be directed against the leadership of the left.

The left of the 1990’s seeks not the nationalization of the productive economy but a takeover of the institutional fabric and administrative structures of the country. To achieve these goals it uses education as a weapon, to condemn potential opponents and to create a world that matches its ideology and interests. Inevitably in an over-centralized state, the rest of the population has to pay for this agenda.