Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
The exam fiasco is a neat demonstration of what is wrong with our administrative state, our media culture and, frankly, our own double standards.
A bad thing happens. We demand, in an angry but unfocused way, that Something Be Done – in this instance, that schools be closed. When confronted with the consequence of our own demand – i.e: that there is no way to be fair to exam candidates other than to let them sit the papers – we howl with protest.
We don’t blame ourselves, obviously. Nor do we blame those who made it impossible for schools to reopen: teachers’ unions, hostile councils and, indeed, reluctant parents. Nor yet do we blame the people who actually drew up and applied the grading system. No, we focus all our anger on the politicians – the same politicians whom we insisted should “step back and trust the professionals”, should “let teachers get on”, should “stop using our kids as a political football”.
It’s the same story every time. Voters demand that technical agencies be free from political interference, but then rage at ministers when those agencies screw things up. Thus, in an inversion of Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the press barons, ministers have responsibility without power.
There is, for example, an unwritten media rule that, whenever failures in procurement by Public Health England or the NHS are reported, these bodies must always be called “the Government”. The verbal trick allows us to draw a distinction between public sector officials (who are presented as undervalued heroes) and politicians (who are vaguely assumed to be malevolent as well as incompetent).
No one suggests that ministers were directly involved in the procurement failures, any more than that that Gavin Williamson personally drew up the grading algorithm (which drew on input from hundreds of interested parties, including the teaching unions, who were perfectly happy with it). No one needs to point to anything specific, because politicians enjoy the automatic disbenefit of the doubt.
It has long been a convention in this country that ministers carry the can – a good and necessary one. The problem is when ministers have had nothing to do with the can until it is thrust into their hands.
Let’s go back to those grades. Most of us will have come across cases of individual injustice. A young friend of mine, who was top of her year, had had 15 A*s at GCSE and was predicted 4 A*s at A-level, knew as soon as she learned how the algorithm had been drawn up that she was likely to be penalised (one of her predicted A*s was in further maths, so she understands how these things work).
Her school – not an underperforming inner city comprehensive, but a successful private girls school – had had two dud years in two of her subjects, and she knew that no computer would award her the grade that she would have achieved in the exam itself. Sure enough, the algorithm did its work and she missed her university offer.
People in her situation were rightly furious. A computer model had deleteriously altered the course of their lives. Those on the other side – of whom there must have been a great many, since results overall rose this year – naturally attributed their good fortune to themselves rather than to the system. That is how these things work.
When ministers stepped in to redress the grievances of the losers, they created new losers. They reversed years of work against grade inflation and gave many students artificially high marks. The losers thus include those who took their exams last year or will take them next year, those who took them this year and would have done well without the boost, and, not least, universities which now face an administrative nightmare.
As Phil Taylor reminded us on this site yesterday, the algorithm had in fact worked in most cases: “Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend”.
My point is not that the U-turn was wrong. My point is that all our options were bad once we had made the calamitous decision to close schools – despite the fact that there has still not been a single identified case of anyone catching Covid-19 from a child anywhere in the world. The time to complain was then, not now.
I know I have banged on a great deal about the hopelessness of our quango state, but the past six months have made my case for me. It’s not just the obvious incompetence of PHE and NHS administrators. It’s every unelected agency, from an immigration service unable to deport illegal migrants to our super-woke police constabularies.
In a powerful article for The Atlantic, Tom McTague argues that “Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus.” His article, which sets out in pitiless detail our various cock-ups, has had a huge impact, reminiscent of the gloom provoked by the valedictory despatch of our Paris ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, in March 1979, which unflinchingly set out the mess that Britain was then in.
In fact, though Sir Nicholas didn’t know it, Britain was on the cusp of a national revival. Its administrative state was failing, but the country as a whole was not. In the 1980s, free to pursue their ambitions, the British outperformed every European economy and resumed their place at the world’s top tables.
Now, as then, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that the failure of our bureaucracies denotes a general national failure. Going into the Covid-19 crisis, we were a prosperous and successful country, leading the world in biotech and artificial intelligence, higher education and the audiovisual sector, legal and financial services. We face a specific and remediable problem, not a general decline.
The good news is that, even before the pandemic hit, this Government was determined to tackle the quangocracy. Back in January, that might have seemed a slightly recherché and eccentric priority. Not any more.
Politicians should indeed carry the can – over the electoral cycle. Ministers must by now be aware of how rusted and useless the machinery of state has become. They have four years to fix it.