Thursday, 17 July 2014


Political reshuffle prompts recollections

One of this week's storms in the UK teacup has been David Cameron's reshuffle of his government in preparation for next year's General Election. Within this Ken Clarke and William Hague were 'big beasts' at the top of the political tree. They have now left government, prompting recollections of when they were much younger, in the years under Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's Conservative governments when their political paths crossed that of Conductive Education. Inevitably, this also sparked memories of the more protracted and significant contribution in those days of the late Nicolas Scott.

Ken Clarke (1985)

In 1985, arriving in Budapest on one of my earlier routine visits I had gone straight to my hotel from the airport and phoned Mária Hári at Villányi út. to tell her that I had arrived, as I used to do. She said at once –

'You must come, immediately. Your ministre is here' (ministre was one of the words that she invariably said in French when speaking English).

'Which ministre​​?'

'Your ministre'. Come quickly.'

So I took an immediate taxi to Villányi út 67, then still basically the building that had been built by shock workers, or Stakhnovites, to house András Pető's Motor Therapy Institute, with a few later ad hoc add-ons. As soon as I was through the front door I saw Mária energetically leading a crocodile of people along the corridor, mainly men in suits. At the very end end was a young woman, plainly English, presumably a British civil servant – one of 'my' minister's party. I fell in beside her –

'Are you one of their chaps, or ours?' I asked.'

She stared at me in startled horror. After all this was a Communist country and presumably she had been well warned. She did not reply, but fled at once to the front of the column. Everyone halted. The procession in strict order of precedence included Ken Clark, then Minister of State for Health, and his Hungarian equivalent, HM Ambassador to Hungary and a high official from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, British civil servants in attendance and their Hungarian equivalents – plus, I am fairly sure, a reporter and a photographer from the Daily Mail who were there on another story and had tagged on like me. A higher-up British civil servants came back to see what was happening at the back. He politely asked me who I was and led me to the head of the column where a beaming Mária introduced me to Ken Clarke. She made me sound pretty good.

Yes, I looked a bit of a scruff, sartorially about on a par with Ken Clarke.

So off the crocodile went once more, 'making the round', with me now at the head being egged on by Mária to tell my Minister about our plans for bringing Conductive Education to the United Kingdom, and how much money was needed to do so. At the same time she gave him the well worked-up display for visiting dignitaries, the set piece tableaux, the vignettes of conductive pedagogic practice, the little anecdotes and biographic sketches. We all finished up in the little yard towards the wooden sheds, where some children displayed their skill on roller skates. Ken Clarke was much impressed. He was meant to be.

Peter Unwin, HM Ambassador, and his wife had already developed an interest our our project. It was they who slipped the Pető Institute on to the programme of Ken Clarke's visit, to the surprise of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry where no one apparently had ever heard of it. They asked me to dinner at the residence that night with Ken Clarke, a really nice bloke, showing a far better potential door on to the agenda of national government that could ever have been provided by the angry, middle-ranking opposition met in what was then, I think, called the Department of Education and Science.

After making the round with Mária during the day, at dinner that night, Ken Clarke had one all-embracing question –

'Why don't we have it?'

That was nearly thirty years ago. This week he left the Government. I wonder how I would answer him if he asked that question now.

He had been in Budapest for a routine Ministerial visit.  He returned enthusiastic about what he heard and seen of Conductive Education but found the Department of Education and Science sitting on the question, and stonewalling – and very soon he was promoted to the Cabinet, as Paymaster General. A positive torch, however, has been lit in Health, later picked up and kept alive by Nicholas Scott.

Nicholas Scott (1987-1994)

I had had a lot of time for Nicholas Scott, Minister for the Disabled,, a critical period during the establishment of Conductive Education in the United Kingdom. He and the civil servants responsible to him always struggled to understand Conductive Education and the issues around it from our point of view – and, as far as this was possible, brought quite a bit of money our way too. I travelled down quite often to his office in the still very new Richmond House in Whitehall to brief him on what was happening in Conductive Education – not just at home but overseas too, especially in Hungary.

It was to Nicholas Scott on a visit to Budapest that the Hungarian Government announced its surprising and ill-advised mega-plans to create the Pető Foundation in order to capitalise through an International Pető Appeal on what it misjudged as worldwide official interest in Conductive Education. It was aiming to raise US$74 million (and even more breathtaking sum for such purpose at that time than it is now) – this would pay for a truly colossal International Pető Institute. He it was who demonstrated that Government as a whole did not buy into the negative research evidence (nor did the Foreign Office) bought during that period by the Department of Education and Science, and it was he who adjudicated a deal to settle the highly damaging legal proceedings that the Pető Foundation brought against the Foundation for Conductive Education.

And personally, he too was a very nice man.

In short, we had became most comfortable in feeling that under Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's premierships we could look to the political support of the Minister for the Disabled. When Nicholas Scott left office in 1993 it was a very critical time for Conductive Education in the UK, following the DES's research report, the 'Pető court case' and the confusing entry into the field of the Spastics Society (reconfigured a year later as Scope), so I lost no time in contacting his successor, William Hague.

William Hague (1993)

In due course I was summoned to meet William Hague, in what in my mind still was Nicholas Scott's old office. Wonderful, I thought, those good times will continue to roll.

At the time William Hague was a whizz-kid, very ambitious and tipped to be going to high places politically. I found him polite and crisp. He asked me questions and listened attentively to my answers, responding back to explore further what I had said in his own terms. I soon realised that his questions and his responses indicated tight focus upon the possible political advantages of his being involved with Conductive Education, to him in his new job. It took little more time to realise that Conductive Education would not be able to provide him anything of use. My half-hour was soon up, and he did not say 'Be in touch'.

I did not warm to him. Nor I suspect he to me.

William Hague politically went his way the following year, promoted Secretary of State for Wales. As far as I know, he never crossed the path of Conductive Education again.

That was effectively the end of our political contact with John Major's Conservative government. Soon there would be the Blairite New Labour government, its educational ideologues philosophically very distant from Conductive Eduction, leaving Conductive Education in the United Kingdom in the political wilderness. As was the Conservative Party, for a long time.

And now...?

The Conservatives returned to power as part of a Coalition Government in 2010. This time last week Ken Clarke was Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Secretary of State for Justice, and William Hague was First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons. Nicholas went into political eclipse in 1997, and died of Alzheimer's in 2005 aged 71.

There have been other national politicians with walk-on parts in the UK's chequered Conductive Education story that there are other figures who made interventions that were significant at the time, as assorted bunch that included Dave Nellist, Jack Ashley, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Forsyth, Iain Duncan Smith, Frank Dobson, Claire Short. Plenty of others have looked in on Conductive Education had something to say too. There were also a few significant civil servants. Some of these interventions were positive in intention and effect. Some most decidedly not. Perhaps their interventions will be recounted in the future.

Conductive Education has cut no figure on the national stage in the United Kingdom for some time, though possibly this might now change.


    Not Haig

    Thank you, Gill Maguire – not only for reading but also for correcting my howler
    Should I ever mention William Hague again, I now have a handy mnemonic

    Correct more →

  2. Anytime, Andrew. I find all your posts of historical memories fascinating as glimpses of how it was, and as a result, how it isn't now.