Monday, 1 April 2013

Jobs for the Boys

The news that David Miliband has resigned his non-exec position at Sunderland FC, in protest at Paolo Di Canio's Fascist sympathies, proves that you can take the boy out of politics but you can't take politics out of the boy. Given last week's announcement that he was off to New York to pimp for the Tracy Gang, one assumes he was planning to desert the Black Cats anyway, a gig tied to his role as a local MP rather than any footy affiliation (he's actually an Arsenal fan and will now be able to hang out with Piers Morgan in an upscale NYC sports bar on match days - lucky fella). Citing the stroppy Italian looks like opportunism intended to deflect attention from what is essentially further collateral damage of his sulk. Unsurprisingly, the people of South Shields seem reluctant to have another "princeling" parachuted in.

It was amusing to read the panegyrics on the elder Miliband last week as they strained to identify some significance, some cause that has lost its leader, in his curtailed political career. With Bonnie Prince Charlie there was no mistaking the cause, either at the time or subsequently, but this latter day prince over the water represents little beyond the busted flush of Blairism, with David as the Young Pretender to Tony's Old Pretender. The carefully calibrated speeches given since he lost the leadership election are now held up as evidence of his agonising dilemma, unable to define a distinct position without causing unintended grief for himself or his brother. In fact they just revealed his intellectual bankruptcy, unable to progress from the "tough but compassionate" neoliberal bollocks of old. Like Charles Edward Stuart, history passed him by some time ago.

One of the most regretful reviews came from Martin Kettle, who was particularly bothered by the topsy-turvy world of modern politics in which talented youth are hothoused at Westminster before being cast upon the political scrapheap with promise unfulfilled: "In an ageing society, politicians start and finish younger than ever, with little experience other than politics in-between. This is crazy on several counts. It's all very well saying that they leave in time to fully embrace fulfilling new postpolitical lives. But there is something very wrong with a political system in which you learn your wisdom after being in charge of government rather than the other way around". As usual with Mr Kettle, this ignores the pertinent fact that young politicians with negligible experience are nothing new, and that the age profile of MPs has barely changed over time.

As the academic Philip Cowley has noted, "In 1964, the median age of Conservative MPs was 45. In 2010, it was 47. The median age of Labour MPs in 1964 was 52; in 2010 it was 52". Young MPs are not so rare - simple maths tells you that with plenty in their 60s and 70s and an average near 50, there must be a decent number in their 30s and 40s. In the past, many became MPs in "khaki elections", riding a tide of sympathy after war service, like Winston Churchill in 1900 (26 years old) and Oswald Mosley in 1918 (22), even though this meant not only narrow experience but experience particularly unsuited to the needs of peacetime. In the modern era, a dab of public service is less likely to mean a stint in the Colonial Office or the armed services (though examples like Rory Stewart show that it still happens), and more likely a short career alternating between time spent as a political adviser and a thinktank wallah.

The dominance of the career politician has been a regular trope in modern commentary, though you do suspect this owes as much to regularly watching The Thick of It as engaging with reality. The true significance is not the rise of the SPADs but the decline of political participation and local party autonomy, leading to an increased reliance on party headquarters for both direction and candidates. In the case of Labour, the gradual loss of power by trades unionists in the constituencies since the 1980s, and the introduction of all-women shortlists (which address one problem but encourage another, i.e. parachuting-in), has exacerbated this. Among Tories, preferential treatment is overt and blatantly tied to money in many cases, but twas ever thus.

The SPAD meme has perversely burnished the reputation of any politician who managed to hold down a job between gap year and election. There was a good example of this last summer when John Harris had a small epiphany: "Watching Jeremy Hunt's day at the Leveson inquiry, one thought hit me like a hammer: that he looked like the perfect modern politician, and for all the wrong reasons. He seemed shaky, inexperienced and regularly out of his depth ... Hunt's backstory, involving time in Japan and a successful education business, might seem to set him apart, but he looks and sounds like a risen-without-trace politician straight from central casting".

If Harris has thoroughly checked the facts, or just run his copy through his own internal bullshit-detector, he might have been less puzzled. Hunt, an emblematic politician for our times, is the son of an admiral. After Charterhouse and Oxford PPE, he went straight into management consultancy (i.e. selling theory rather than experience), then did a TEFL stint in Japan (you need to be well-off to afford to do this). His main commercial achievement was becoming a partner (via a mate) in an IT PR firm in the 90s (not exactly a tough market to sell into), while his "education business" was Hotcourses, a search listing for training courses (a derivative of an online job board - I doubt he masterminded the technical design). This is the profile of a serial entrepreneur - i.e. someone without any particular talent but with good connections. In Russia, he would be a "biznessman".

The revelation that Hunt equated Rupert Murdoch's corporate interests with the national good, and seemed to respond to flattery like a particularly dim ingenue, should hardly come as a surprise given his career to date. His current job, tut-tutting over the frightful NHS, is clearly being approached as just another management consultancy assignment in which outsourcing is the answer, irrespective of the question. For David Miliband, the NGO berth allows him to believe that he will be doing something socially useful on the World stage, as he glad-hands his many friends at the US State Department and chides EU leaders to be more internationalist. No doubt he will also write the occasional article directed at the UK, subtly reminding us of his talents and possible future availability should we need a saviour. The self-regard of these people is staggering. Personally I'd rather have Martin O'Neill as Secretary of State for Health (he has an air of dour probity) and Piers Morgan doing penance by running International Rescue, preferably from Thunderbird 5.

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