Waldegrave: too clever for his own good?

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IT SOUNDS like a script from Yes Minister. A beleaguered government, rocked by scandals and accused of lying over arms sales, overseas aid and taxes, puts forward its minister for open government to answer some of the charges.

Honouring his duty to openness, he tells a committee of MPs what they know only too well, that 'in exceptional circumstances, it is necessary to say something that is untrue in the House of Commons'. Then, while all around are lying, the minister who tells the truth is pilloried.

That is probably how the Secretary of State for Public Service and Science, William Waldegrave, soon to launch a White Paper on openness, views the events of last week. But to many colleagues at Westminster it was no coincidence that it was the cerebral Mr Waldegrave, Fellow of All Souls 1971-86, who walked into an elephant trap.

As a senior colleague put it: 'William acted as if it were an academic seminar.' Most Tory MPs agreed - instead of engaging in the question, he should have simply read out the relevant section of Questions of Procedure for Ministers or used one of the tricks of the Parliamentary game: a joke, a laugh, or that most tired of cliches 'You may say that, I couldn't possibly comment'. Mr Waldegrave did none of these but said what he thought, provoking the suspicion that he might be just a little too academic for modern-day politics.

Not all components of the British body politic look down on academic prowess. Mr Waldegrave was highly regarded at the Foreign Office, where he was a Minister of State who could 'chew through the briefs rapidly', mastering complex subjects with great skill. The Foreign Office has little legislation to pilot and ministers need less of the street-fighting qualities required around the Commons, but it is the exception.

Britain's well-documented anti-intellectualism extends deep into Westminster. Many have hidden their academic prowess beneath a public bravura - Lord Healey for example. One of the cleverest politicians in the current Cabinet, Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, makes a point of playing the political bruiser. As a consequence his political standing is much greater than ministers such as John Redwood, Fellow of All Souls 1972-87, and John Patten, who became a Fellow of Hertford in 1972.

Thus, when John Major reformed his Cabinet and put Mr Waldegrave and Robert Jackson (Fellow of All Souls 1968- 86) into the department administering the Citizens' Charter, there was much hilarity. Here was a PM, without a university education, putting two Fellows of All Souls in charge of motorway cones.

But some of the brightest parliamentarians have proved some of the biggest political disappointments, including Enoch Powell and Lord Joseph.

Labour has had greater success with its academics. Lord Wilson proved a formidable election winner and his Cabinets were graced by politicians of the calibre of Lord Jenkins and Lord Healey. But recently, Labour's economic spokesmen, Lord Desai, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, fell into the Waldegrave trap by speaking his mind, and arguing that all Vat zero-rating should be removed. He was sacked.

Sir Robert Rhodes James, former Conservative MP for Cambridge, said: 'Sadly very few people of academic or intellectual stature want to go into Parliament. It is partly because they are not encouraged to do so by local party associations.

'I was the only MP out of 651 who was a university professor. The standard of debate on matters like higher education was much lower in the Commons than in the Lords, which was stuffed with vice-chancellors. I would rather have more 'academics' going into the Commons, although the fashion is now against them.'

If they get to Westminster many academics, by their own confession, find it difficult to operate. According to the former education minister, Robert Jackson, academia does 'teach one to look at a question seriously and try to analyse it in an intellectual fashion.

'When I was in office I was always biting my lip or doing the same thing that William is doing - making gaffes.'

A friend of Mr Waldegrave argued: 'William does engage people in debate and discussions and if a question is asked he will think it through and give an answer. To an extent, as a politician, you should not get sucked in. The same ability to think things through at the dispatch box brings a sense of the tutorial, rather than a political presentation. That does not go down too well'.

Nor does Mr Waldegrave like dissembling. On two occasions this has got him into trouble; once on the eve of the Gulf war when he failed to conceal his worries about the fate of British hostages, and once in the election when he was asked a blunt question about Conservative involvement in the 'Jennifer's Ear' saga.

Things are made difficult for the academic by the media, which Mr Jackson blames for the tabloidisation of politics.

'To have open government you need mature media,' he said. 'It is more difficult for people to discuss complex issues than it used to be because of the destructive power of the tabloids. The TV sound bite also makes it impossible to communicate complex arguments. It is all black and white, cut and dried, yaa-boo.'

But Mr Waldegrave's gaffe cannot be divorced from a context created by the Government. He crystallised public dismay at the allegations of sleaze, malpractice and broken Tory pledges on taxation.

George Walden, an ex-minister and alumnus of the universities of Cambridge, Moscow and Harvard, argues the malaise is rooted in the Eighties, when Conservatives refused to tell people the truth about the welfare state, taxation, the economy or universal benefits. There is, he adds 'a much higher level of myth than is healthy so that there is a high level of disaffection. Into this gas-filled room steps William with a match to illuminate it - and up it goes.'

(Photograph omitted)