Of all the examples of hubris in history few are as poignant as the story of Singapore. During the Second World War, the port at the foot of the Malay Peninsula was key to the control of south-east Asia.
Which is why so much effort was invested by Britain in making it impregnable. The Empire's most formidable firepower was arrayed across the straits which Singapore dominated, to keep the invader out.
But all that ordnance ended up as so much scrap metal. Because the Japanese did what no-one expected and attacked overland, by routes considered impassable, and overwhelmed a complacent garrison whose guns were pointing the wrong way.
Our political masters now look to be in a position strikingly similar to Singapore's in the war. A cataclysm has come which nobody in charge had predicted or prepared for. The scale and scope of the financial crisis and the accompanying recession have appeared to overwhelm carefully constructed positions. And the Government certainly looks to be in headlong retreat.
But there has also been a particular challenge levelled at the Conservatives. The social policies we had developed in gentler economic times, on welfare reform, family support and schools, it has been argued, are now no longer relevant.
Our guns were pointing the wrong way.
The critics argue that the Tory emphasis on education reform as our number-one priority for office is now, sadly, misplaced. The world has changed in the past 12 months. Surely grand schemes of school improvement are a luxury we cannot afford?
The truth, however, is precisely the opposite. I believe in improving our schools because education is a good in itself more precious than any other. But the grim economic realities actually make education reform more vital than ever. Reforming schools is vital to strengthening our economy. And rather than slowing down the pace of reform, or even going into reverse, as the brightest Blairites now confess that Labour has done, we need to accelerate the drive to improve our schools.
We know that in the future there will be fewer and fewer jobs available to those without rigorous qualifications. The shrewdest forecasts tell us there will soon be, at best, just half a million jobs in our economy for those with low levels of skills. The sorts of jobs which once gave dignity and security to a majority of the male workforce will now be available to only a few. And those few will find themselves falling increasingly further behind, because all the evidence shows that the salaries open to the well-qualified will continue to accelerate ahead of the wages available to those without top-level qualifications.
We already have an education system that is shockingly bad at promoting social mobility and helping the poorest in our society. One fifth of children leave school without even a single C at GCSE. Out of the 13,000 children who got three As at A-level last year, just 189 came from the poorest eighth of our society, those eligible for free school meals. We live in a country where more boys from Eton get the passes for Oxbridge than boys on free school meals. That lack of opportunity for the poorest is, to me, plain immoral, but it is also increasingly economically foolish because we cannot afford to waste any talent. We must maximise the country's economic firepower.
Every independent audit confirms that we are falling behind, and today's Cambridge Review into Primary Education is only the latest report to reflect our malaise. That is why we are determined to radically reform our education system, to ensure our schools, and our children, can compete with the world's best. Like? Well, like Singapore, as it happens.
Our former colony now outstrips us in every measure of educational performance. And especially in the crucial subject areas of maths and science which will help drive future economic growth.
The success of Singapore, and other nations that top the education league tables such as South Korea and Finland, has been driven by reforms that have got the most talented people possible into teaching. In Finland, teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent of graduates, in Singapore from the top third. And all the evidence shows that the quality of teaching is the crucial determinant in any child's success at school. Which is why education reformers across the globe are, like us, pioneering policies to raise the quality and prestige of teaching.
While Labour wants to extend bureaucratic interference in education, Barack Obama has backed plans to get more schools outside bureaucratic control and use new freedoms to pay more for good teachers. Sweden, whose reforms we plan to emulate, has already shown how liberating schools from town hall bureaucracies encourages innovation, gets new talent into teaching and raises standards.
Alongside structural changes to drive improvements in teaching, we'll overhaul exams to get rid of the modules, coursework and political correctness that have driven standards down. Every weapon we have will be deployed to fight educational failure. Because we find ourselves in the middle of another great global convulsion and the greatest enemy today, as it was 70 years ago, will be complacency in the face of the challenge from the east.