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Sunday, 26 September 2010

And then there was Ed …

Once upon a time, a young man with the aspiration to make his mark – and the means to do it - got a good degree, perhaps Oxbridge, but maybe a provincial university, then went off and had a career doing something real, a profession, business, or the civil service, achieved something substantial in that chosen career, got some real understanding of life, then in his late thirties or early forties considered a life of public service in politics.

On entering the Commons, he had some understanding of the life of the nation, its people and its problems – he had a broad perspective and perhaps even a modicum of wisdom.

Not these days, they don’t …. Oxbridge is a must, and the degree must be that strange hybrid designed especially for the aspiring politician, the PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and the career chosen is politics from the start. And so the Asimovian new breed of politicians have their gestation, and walk straight off the Oxbridge assembly line with shining, metallic, inhuman certainty into the seat and the heart of government as a political assistant, as a speechwriter to a Cabinet Minister, as a special adviser.

Of course they have to select a political party to join to achieve this, and this selection is made, not on the basis of experience of life or burning conviction, but on a mix of family tradition, contacts, and cold, calculating assessment of which party offers the best route to power and influence within a short timescale, typically four or five years.

At some point, a sabbatical allows them to work or study in the United States for a year, where they meet senior US politicians and absorb effortlessly the idea of Britain as a junior partner, fully committed to a compliant and subservient role in foreign policy to their US masters.

At the earliest opportunity, with the backing of the established politicians they have served, they seek a nomination as a prospective parliamentary candidate, ideally for a safe seat. But occasionally they may have to undergo trial by fire in fighting a lost cause, in a contest which nonetheless bloods them and provides essential media coverage.

From the start, these strange creatures, custom-designed for politics, are strangers to the true life of the nation and its people, destined to rule them, but locked into the assumptions of a closed world that ensure that they can never properly serve them or serve true democracy.

Sooner or later, they have the right to take the state to war  - with the approval of the United States – and they can assist the US in the pressing of the nuclear button.

They themselves will never be placed in harm’s way by military service, nor will their children, but they will sacrifice the children of others with relative equanimity, and with the glib words of regret and condolence they have learned to parrot at the feet of their mentors, words that they perhaps actually crafted for those who preceded them, in phrases liberally spattered with references to heroes, comrades, Queen and country, never forgetting and eternally grateful – variants on the old, old lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

(It pains me to mention that we have a version of this career path in the Scottish Parliament, where some candidates seem to think that proclaiming their ability to “find their way around the Parliament” - i.e. familiarity with the systems, procedures and political levers to push  - constitutes an election address and gives them credibility with the electorate, rather than experience of life as it is lived in Scotland today, with some tangible experience and achievement within that reality . Frankly, if that is all they have to offer, it is not enough – for me, anyway.)

And so we have Ed, although it was a close run thing – it could have been David. Does it matter which overall? Yes, a little. Does it matter to Scotland? Probably quite a lot, at least in the spring of 2011, since it will influence the Labour vote in a contest which will be a straight fight between them and the SNP.

We might usefully remind ourselves that this new Labour leader has a special understanding of Scotland. He was deeply involved in Labour’s manifesto for the 1999 Holyrood elections, and in fact resigned as Special Advisor at the Treasury to devote himself full-time to that campaign, and Labour’s rebuttal strategy. He will be a formidable foe of the SNP.




  1. What's the big problem with the PPE course, and with Oxbridge? It sounds to me like inverse snobbery.

    I'm heading off this year to Oxford University to do the Politics, Philosophy and Economics course. This is because I want to enter a career of Politics, because I want to become a Politician. I want to be a speech writer and political advisor beforehand, because I want to know how politics is done. And then I want to join a political party which I believe can get me into power.

    Why? Because that's what I truly believe is the right thing to do. I have certain political beliefs and convictions, and I know the only way they're going to make any difference is if I'm actually in government. If that's cold and calculating, then I'm sorry, but if burning convictions lead to shouting in the sidelines and being unable to make a real difference to real peoples lives, then that's something that needs to be done.

    Your analysis and description of the so-called "machine politician" lacks the motivation behind the story, the drive and the passion, plus the intellectual characterisation and philosophical convictions that make us who we are. People like us, the conveyor belt politicians, are a necessary part of our modern day representative democracy.

    I imagine in ten or twenty years from now, people such as yourself will be alienated from voting for me, a typical oxbridge PPE educated candidate. I find that sad, that a life I'm trying to devote to help other people is being systematically demonised.

    Tell me, that young kid who is about to embark on the PPE degree in Oxford, why I am any less capable of understanding real life because of it. I, who was state educated. I, who took up at times two jobs to ensure I and my family at times had enough money. I, who missed out on opportunities because of my background. I, of a one parent family, of a turbulent childhood.

    Why should I be made to feel any less, when I have worked and struggled all my life to get to the point where I am today?

    I admit that there are career politicians who do indeed treat it as something to be done for personal self-gain, and they are bad. But don't brush all oxbirdge PPEists the same way please. Don't define us all as Asimovian. Cold and calculating as we might oneday be, we're still human, I'm still a kid, and we all have a lot yet to learn.

  2. I don't have a big problem with the PPE course, Stephen.

    Sometimes called Modern Greats, it is very popular with students, although some have argued against it from various standpoints - that it destroyed the traditional classics degrees, that it dilutes each subject: some even argue that it perpetuates the class system!

    It is undoubtedly a strange hybrid, and can be seen as a degree tailored for the needs of the employer rather than for true learning, but that is a criticism aimed at a lot of degrees - and universities.

    Having said all that, had it been available in the early 1950s, and had I had the resources to stay on at school and go to university, it is probably the degree I would have chosen.

    My target is not the degree, but the new political class who chose it for political careers of the type I have described, e.g. David Cameron, Ed Miliband etc.

    It originated in Balliol College, Oxford in the early 1920s and was aimed specifically at the civil service and the new breed of administrators that the British Empire believed it needed. It would be unfair to the degree to equate it with the progressive decline of the Empire that followed. Balliol of course is the heart of the perpetuation of the class system in Britain, hence its detractors on those grounds.

    I believe the PPE degree is a strange but relevant hybrid in the 21st century, that it is a valid choice for students. It is not the degree itself, but the use of it by a narrow, self-perpetuating class that I criticise.

    I wish you well with your studies, Stephen, and hope that when you graduate you will be able to make use of the breadth of vision and understanding it brings to you to make a productive contribution to our trouble world. The future is in your hands, not mine.

    Best wishes,

    Peter Curran