"The only Cabinet minister in Blair's 1997 administration known to have had any experience of work in the commercial sector was John Prescott, a ship's steward in the '50s. He was later joined by Alan Milburn, who used to run a Marxist bookshop called Days of Hope, better known by the spoonerism Haze of Dope"There is a lot to unpack in such a short passage. It is part of a common-place argument that politicians are distanced from 'real life' and have no understanding of the 'real world', being locked in a parallel universe of their own making. The argument isn't without merit, but in one sense it is a truism. We all live lives proscribed by the boundaries of class, gender, region, ethnicity, occupation etc. and do not have an intimate understanding of the lives of others, though we can try and learn and the failure to do so is a major contributor to bad management and poor policy making.
Yet there are other difficulties with the specifics of Oborne's comment. Anyone coming into government will of necessity have been an MP for some time and so politics will have been their full-time job for quite a while. Then what does he mean by "the commercial sector"? Private industry? And if so, why is this experience more valid than the public sector or the professions? And, of course, there is a neat, snobbish dig at Prescott in there too. But even taking it on its own terms, there is one major problem with this statement. It isn't true.
The claim that no-one apart from Prescott in the 1997 Cabinet had any experience outside politics seemed so unlikely that I did a bit of checking on the internet. It took less than an hour and this is what I found.
Margaret Beckett was a metallurgist for AEI, soon to become part of GEC. David Clark worked in forestry and was a lab technician in a textile mill, then became a mature student and university teacher. Nick Brown worked for Procter and Gamble. Frank Dobson worked in industry, but for the then nationalised Electricity Generating Board. Gavin Strang was an agricultural scientist.
Several cabinet members had experience of local government, the most notable being David Blunkett who had run Sheffield City Council, possibly a better preparation for a ministerial post than being a management consultant.
There is another side to the "commercial sector" as well. Unsurprisingly, the 1997 Cabinet contained four former full-time union officials, including Prescott. Day-to-day working in industrial relations is certainly an education in the only too real life experienced by many of the electorate!
The biggest single group was lawyers with seven in cabinet, does their work not count as "commercial"? There were two former adult education tutor-organisers as well and three University lecturers. Clare Short had been a civil servant and, given the new government's interest in the Third Sector as part of their Big Society fad, they might be interested to know that Chris Smith had worked for a housing charity.
There was no-one from senior business management or from the financial services sector, but are they any more representative of 'real life'? Anyway, given the overwhelmingly Tory ethos of business management, it would be odd to expect to find anyone building a career as a Labour politician from it. And though the ministers were all middle class professionals, quite a few had come from working class families and were the beneficiaries of the post war expansion of educational opportunities. Rather than being narrow apparatchiks, they had rather a wide range of experience and impressive academic qualifications.
It is always fun to point out where sloppy research undermines an argument, but I think that more important things are at stake. The book is riding a current wave of anti-politics, which I consider highly dangerous. It takes various forms; 'they are only in it for themselves', 'they are all the same', and other associated generalisations. Of course, if you ask people to expand on this and be specific they usually can't. This is because of a slippage between scepticism and cynicism.
Politics, as a means of managing our public and collective interests, is a necessity. It never goes away. I am deeply depressed about the awful level of current political debate, the dominance of an elite consensus on political economy and on the quality of political leadership. However, this is very different from a rejection of politics in itself.
Anti-politics is cynical not analytical. It is a blanket condemnation of politics and an expression of contempt for politicians, whatever they do or stand for. In itself, it posits no alternatives and has no analysis. There is the strange Tea Party anti-political movement in the United States, but perhaps the most egregious recent example is the Greek Sect of Revolutionaries whose first proclamation announced, "We don't do politics, we do guerilla warfare". Nobody knows what they stand for. I doubt if they do. Often this is an impulse that can be exploited by the populist autocrat who declares himself to be 'above politics' (the ultimate oxymoron for a politician), sometimes it can lead to the demand for a 'top businessman' to come and sort things out. Demagoguery replaces the building of movements, alliances and the representation of interests.
My deep disappointment with New Labour knows no bounds, and as for the new lot ... It would be a huge relief to see politicians shunning conventional wisdom and media stereotypes in favour of good research and pursuing principles instead of exercising their own cynicism through media-driven populist measures to be nasty to whoever is the latest folk devil. However, we do need to be able to explain why we think like that, rather than simply hug the comfort blanket of anti-political sentiment. Intelligent politics is the answer to anti-politics, it can be just as critical, but with reason and, most importantly, it offers us alternatives.
Thanks to John