Charlie Courtauld: A little learning can be a dangerous thing in politics

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'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise, wrote Thomas Gray. Nowhere, it seems, does the dictum better apply than in the field of politics, where a little learning can be a very dangerous thing. Consider Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary. From his election in 1992 until this year, Dr Fox made admirably little impact - except for some well-placed rumours (untrue) which linked him romantically with the former
Neighbours star Natalie Imbruglia. In your dreams, Liam. Now Dr Fox has decided to seize the limelight. Perhaps misunderstanding the point of the Tories' summer "offensive", Fox has criticised the language skills of overseas-originating NHS doctors, insisting that a language test be passed before they be allowed to practise in NHS hospitals.

'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise, wrote Thomas Gray. Nowhere, it seems, does the dictum better apply than in the field of politics, where a little learning can be a very dangerous thing. Consider Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary. From his election in 1992 until this year, Dr Fox made admirably little impact - except for some well-placed rumours (untrue) which linked him romantically with the former Neighbours star Natalie Imbruglia. In your dreams, Liam. Now Dr Fox has decided to seize the limelight. Perhaps misunderstanding the point of the Tories' summer "offensive", Fox has criticised the language skills of overseas-originating NHS doctors, insisting that a language test be passed before they be allowed to practise in NHS hospitals.

The suggestion comes hot on the heels of Dr Fox's last health blitz - in which he floated the idea of a huge expansion in private care: another wheeze the voters seem unlikely to warm to.

So where has this blunderer, who appears to know nothing of the public's fondness for the NHS, come from? Why, the NHS of course. For Dr Fox was a practising GP before entering the Commons. On the face of it, he is the perfect choice to reassure voters that the NHS is safe in Tory hands. In reality, electors, already wary of doctors after the Harold Shipman scandal, are loath to trust their lives to Dr Liam either. With his wall of framed certificates and seven years of training, Liam is, it appears, overqualified to tell us about our health service.

And he's not alone. Dr David Owen's time as junior minister for health was not a triumph either. His boss, Barbara Castle, noted at the time: "I like David and am glad of his endless policy initiatives, even if some of them are only half thought through and, having started them, he drops them suddenly." For both Fox and Owen, medical expertise was a hindrance to clear-headed policy-making.

It's not only in health where a little learning can be an obstacle. Among current junior ministers, the Home Office minister Barbara Roche has found her experience as a barrister of little help in her repeated televised maulings over asylum. Meanwhile, in the Foreign Office, the former anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain has found his former friends in Africa unco-operative and distrustful of his role of minister for the continent.

So why does expertise so often backfire? In the first place, civil servants distrust it. Whitehall still has the power to delay or obstruct an unpopular minister. Any minister who rubs Sir Humphrey up the wrong way is doomed. Then there is the experts' tendency to obsession. No ministerial appointment of May 1997 was greeted with such high hopes as that of Frank Field - allowed to "think the unthinkable" on social security. It was a job that Mr Field had coveted all his working life. As, first, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, then at the Low Pay Unit, and finally as chairman of the social security select committee, he has unrivalled knowledge of the flaws in the system - and believed he had Tony Blair's blessing in tackling them.

But the real business of government was not so easy. Mr Field ran into difficulties with his cabinet boss, Harriet Harman. Their not-so-private disagreements were unbearable for Mr Field who demanded of Mr Blair that she be sacked. To his surprise, after only 14 months of government, not only was Ms Harman fired - but he was too. It was left to Gordon Brown to unthink the unthinkable.

But it is in the industrial sphere that specialist knowledge can really become a liability. Under Wilson and Blair, Labour has repeatedly appointed "experts" to business briefs - and paid the price. At first it was trade unionists who found favour. The most celebrated, Frank Cousins, lasted less than two years in Wilson's cabinet. His loyalties split, Cousins chose to return to his old friends. With union barons out of favour, the Blair government has turned to the bosses for its business acumen - with no greater success. None of the boardroom whizzes in Whitehall - from Geoffrey Robinson to Lord Simon via Lord Sainsbury - has proved to have the ministerial skills to match his entrepreneurial ones. On the contrary, each has provided the Government with more embarrassments than coups.

Now the Tories are following suit with their very own Archie Norman. Archie may be a genius at piling high and selling cheap at Asda - but as a politician he's a flop.

All of which adds up to a big thumbs-down for ministers with "relevant experience". But that is not to say that a totally ignorant departmental minister is desirable either. Nobody wants a cabinet of Jim Hackers, pliable to the whim of the Civil Service. What the perfect minister needs is a bedrock of opinions and convictions - but a sufficiently open mind to see the sense in flexibility. Hence the fact that several of this government's most successful ministers - David Blunkett, Michael Meacher, Clare Short - have come from the traditional left. Knowing that they face a prime minister naturally unsympathetic to their convictions has been an advantage for two reasons. First because, not expecting instant preferment up the cabinet ladder, they have kept their eyes on their briefs - and secondly because they have, when necessary, been sufficiently canny to tack to the right.

But what has really made a success of these ministers is their long tenure. After more than three years of Labour government, none has yet been reshuffled. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a prime minister dedicated to "lifelong learning", Mr Blair seems to value on-the-job training over inside knowledge. Of the 22 faces around the cabinet table, 15 were at the first cabinet meeting of May 1997. Every year the press gears up for "night-of-the-long-knives" stories to splash on the front pages - and every year Alastair Campbell delights in their disappointment. "Control-freak Tony" is proving remarkably controlled at giving ministers their head.

But the downside of such reluctance to reshuffle is obvious. Some of the talented Labour MPs in the queue have had to wait longer than they expected. And it is making them itchy. Even that most New Labour backbencher, Tony Wright, has lately voiced his dissatisfaction, in the New Statesman. Like many of his contemporaries, he has chosen to make his mark as a select committee chairman, rather than waiting for the cabinet job which never arrives. Perhaps, like Mr Field and Chris Mullin before him, he will soon get a call from Mr Blair, inviting him to take ministerial office. Before he accepts, Mr Wright should reflect on the fate of those two, celebrated committee chairmen who have faded as ministers. Mr Wright would be an obvious choice for Cabinet Office minister in any reshuffle. But that's why he probably won't get the job. Like Dr Fox on health, he knows too much.

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