Britain is a chumocracy, no matter what the Old Etonians might argue

Jesse Norman's appointment, and his explanation for it, leave much to be desired

Chris Bryant
Friday 03 May 2013 18:58

OK, I get it. Jesse Norman is like really, really clever. He’s got a doctorate in philosophy; he worked in the City; he’s written a book or two and he got into Eton and Oxford. So of course the PM should summon him to join the Downing Street sanctum sanctorum as a sort of policy wallah, fanning ideas in the general direction of the electorate.

Except … I’m not so sure Norman is quite as bright as they say. After all, his self-regarding suggestion that the reason there are so many Etonians in high office is because the school has a greater “commitment to public service” than other schools is a classic philosophical mistake (a syllogism, no less). There is a rather more plausible (though less pleasant) explanation of the chumocracy, namely that Etonians stick together. That he chose to make his first pronouncement in his new role in such a cack-handed way would suggest a mind more interested in explaining away privilege than in sharing it around.

Moreover, the praise some have heaped on Norman for his role in sinking the Government’s Lords Reform Bill is misplaced. Leaving aside the fact that his argument against an elected House sounded odd from an elected politician and that all three main parties, his included, are left with a major constitutional headache, Norman effectively torpedoed his party’s chance of winning the next election by antagonising the Liberal Democrats into voting down the boundary changes.

Yes, he launched himself as a star in the Tory firmament, but he completely lost sight of the longer-term objective. I’m sure he thinks that constitutional principle is far more important than merely winning elections, but a subtler campaign or a wiser head might have thought twice about losing the extra 20 or so seats the Tories hoped to gain out of the boundary changes. So maybe Eton boys are not so clever after all. And maybe all we have learnt is that David Cameron is so weak within his own party that he has had to buy the rebels’ loyalty with a seat beside the table.

The new generation has a voice

You’ll have heard the statistics before. A million under 25-year-olds out of work, a steadily increasing number of youngsters trapped for more than a year without a job, and if you look at the map of long-term youth unemployment, it matches the historic patterns of poverty, concentrated in the old mining, shipbuilding and steelwork towns.

We’ve tried to do our bit in the Rhondda Labour Party. We raised enough cash to pay a couple of apprentices the living wage, and Katie and Jack have been working for me for the past three months. But I fear a far greater intractable social malaise if this generation grows up without a prospect of employment. Thus far, the government has come up with nothing, so I’ve decided to ask young people what needs to change, which is why we had 10 youngsters from each of the main secondary schools drawing up a questionnaire for every 16-18 year-old in the constituency. It was a lively session. They all had clear views. And they want change. So perhaps the answer lies in their hands.

Never too old for the political bug

I know everyone thinks we politicians laze around on some beach the moment Parliament is not sitting, and I’m as critical as the next person of the constant recesses. But most of us have been dealing with constituency casework or campaigning in the local elections. Indeed, on Monday I was out on the knocker in Tamworth, a seat that we lost in 2010 and where in 2009 there was a collapse of the Labour vote.

As if to prove the point that politicians are not just in it for themselves, we were joined on the stump by the former MP Brian Jenkins, who had been out leafleting for the best part of a month and was standing, at the age of 70, for the council. I don’t suppose Brian will ever shake off the political bug, which just goes to show that his alma mater, Kingsbury High School in Staffordshire, has just as great a commitment to public service as Eton. (PS, Brian won.)

I know nothing – apparently

On Tuesday I was interviewed, at interminable length in the cold, by a Spanish TV station, which is making a documentary about political transparency. Their thesis was simple: Britain is a shining beacon of openness and democracy while Spain is a nest of corruption and obfuscation. Their evidence? Britain ensures robust questioning of the PM and other party leaders; all government contracts are openly published, and the Freedom of Information Act makes it impossible for British politics to get away with anything dodgy.

In Spain, by contrast, MPs condemn the publication of their expenses as a waste of time. Their pièce de résistance was an instance where the Conservative Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, was so mobbed by journalists on leaving a debate that he was forced to make an about-turn and avoided answering their questions. They reckoned no British politician would do that because it was so cowardly, but I couldn’t bring myself to condemn the poor man and I found myself saying that sometimes the arrogance of the press is even worse than the arrogance of politicians. This upset the whole premise of the interview as I could hear one of the cameramen say that “this dickhead has been a complete waste of time”, to which the producer replied, “but he’s the only one we could get”. They seemed to have forgotten that we had done the interview in Spanish.

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