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

Share

'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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?