Letter: Unchallenged myth of business expertise

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The Independent Online
Sir: Bryan Appleyard ('A test for Thatcher's children', 9 June) writes approvingly of the Thatcher government's onslaught on 'the myth of expertise' in the teaching and health professions.

What is most striking about the Thatcher government is how vigorously it questioned the conventional wisdom of those professions it disliked, while swallowing as 'common sense' the conventional wisdom of those professions it approved of. Its attitude towards economists is in many ways the most striking example. When Sir Keith Joseph attempted to close down the Social Science Research Council on the grounds that such research was not 'scientific' and had an inherently socialist bias, he specifically exempted economics from the attack.

Monetarist economists became, and remain, the gurus of government (and the City) throughout the Eighties, despite the idiocy of some of their ideas and their repeated failures in prescription and prediction.

The cult of the businessman as the all-purpose expert has been almost as absurd - in view of the rather mixed record of the private sector in the Seventies. Businessmen were assumed to have the expertise (or the common sense) needed to manage the health service, to reform the school curriculum, to provide London with substitute bodies for democratic government, to redesign and manage after- school training, and much more. In several of these enterprises, especially successive training schemes, dependence on business approaches has resulted in wasted initiatives and expensive reorganisation; but the myth of business expertise remains virtually unchallenged.

Lawyers, accountants and bankers have also been privileged in governmental acceptance of their own myths of expertise. Like businessmen and economists, their salaries rose disproportionately during the Eighties, as those of other professions were held down. The new generation of government quangos is packed with their representatives - at substantial fees.

Hard standards of measurement applied to the British financial sector over the past 15 years would come up with a worrying gap between personal gains and contributions to the British economy, in a field at least as vital to the country's future as education. So would measurement of the balance contributed by the great takeover entrepreneurs. But no member of the Government has suggested that such tests ought to be applied. Perhaps it is time that they were.

Yours faithfully,


London, SW17