Jonathan’s Sunday Slot
The surprise departure of Alan Johnson this week marked a significant milestone for British politics. A new generation of professional politicians, the ex Special Advisers (SpAds), are now in complete command of politics in this country. Is this a change for the better? Will we benefit from having people who understand Westminster and Whitehall in charge? Or are there risks? Can a clique, with negligible outside experience, run the country?
Labour is led by ex-special advisers. In her conference speech, Harriet Harman reminisced about Ed Miliband’s tea making skills. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, worked for Brown after leaving university. Yvette Cooper started in politics working for John Smith aged just 21. And ironically it is Ed Balls, the most famous SpAd of all, who can claim the most experience outside politics having worked for FT for four years.
Special advisers also control the Conservatives. Both the Prime Minister and Chancellor were groomed for power during the Major govt. David Cameron famously advised Normal Lamont throughout Black Wednesday. George Osborne worked for Douglas Hogg during the BSE crisis. William Hague was not a special adviser, but his background is a hardly a model of life outside politics. Only Theresa May can claim an independent career having worked in the Bank of England in the 1980s.
Even the Lib Dems are led by an old special adviser. Nick Clegg cut his political teeth working for Leon Brittan in Brussels.
Clearly there are benefits from having professional politicians in power. Previous experience of government must be useful. Having seen Major, Blair and Brown at work, this generation should have a head start. They will panic less when problems arise and hopefully should not repeat mistakes.
There are also downsides. They are often out of touch. When ex SpAds leave Westminster they look out of place in the “real world”. It is remarkable that Michael Portillo’s first days outside government were worth filming as a voyage of discovery. David Miliband appears to be on a similar journey. Should this ever happen in a healthy democracy?
Cliques of ex advisers block the progress of talented outsiders. In every party, naturally gifted politicians remain inexplicably on the backbenches. Those that do reach the cabinet are often portrayed as novelty acts. How many times have we heard about “postie” Johnson this week? Michael Gove cannot go for long without someone bringing up Newsnight Review.
It is unlikely that an outsider such as Obama or Clinton could ever lead a UK party. It is also doubtful whether Thatcher or Blair would make it today. Some might say that is a good thing.
For the foreseeable future we are stuck in this SpAdocracy. This government, the next government and the one after that are likely to be led by ex special advisers. How this will change Britain remains to be seen. It might be a good thing. But when you hear politicians increasingly talk about the need to connect with real people, ask yourself why they are so distant in the first place.
Jonathan is a Labour activist and writes a weekly column on PB