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Science, engineering and the two Cabinets

James Woudhuysen

How many of our leaders in New Labour and the Conservatives have any background in technology or business?

I was on a panel about IT with Paul Murphy, the Secretary of State for Wales, recently. He’s a nice man, old school, the son of a Welsh coalminer, and now responsible for something called ‘digital inclusion’. Rather cheekily, I asked him what his degree was in. Modern history, he courteously replied.

In fact I’d researched the man before joining him on the panel, and knew he’d been to Oriel College, Oxford – way more prestigious than my own, much loved alma mater, Sussex University. But Google as I might, I couldn’t find Murphy’s academic background. The same opacity greets if you try to find out about Jim Murphy, Secretary of State for Scotland. He was at Strathclyde, and, that being an institution that’s quite keen on technology, could well have read engineering. In fact, it turns out that Jim Murphy started reading politics and European law, but then took a sabbatical as president of the National Union of Students, never to complete his degree.

I don’t mind too much – health minister Alan Johnson doesn’t have a degree, and only a corporatist like Benito Mussolini would insist that to run, say, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband should really have an MA in nuclear physics rather than one in economics (he did a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Corpus Christi, Oxford, before doing a Masters at LSE). I accept that, up to a point, ministers must rely on outside experts to acquaint them with the technicalities of their job.

Yet just as, in both the Cabinet and in industry, the trend toward outsourcing expertise has gone too far, it’s telling that Miliband went straight into research for the Labour Party after his spell as a student. For when you focus on the Cabinet today, you find out that  ‘research’ doesn’t at all mean research in the sense of R&D. It means, broadly, political research, for Labour or for bodies such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, where foreign secretary David Miliband had his first job.

After some Crime Scene Investigation forensic research of my own, I’ve discovered that the first job – indeed any job ever – taken by every one of Gordon Brown’s 23 Cabinet members of doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with science, technology or engineering. Only John Denham, at the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, has a science degree (it was chemistry, at Southampton), and he promptly moved on to the British Youth Council, War on Want, Christian Aid, Oxfam and other agencies charged with developing the Third World.

Maybe I’m wrong in my findings, and Cabinet ministers, diligent readers of New Civil Engineer, will write in to correct me. But certainly in terms of academic training, the pattern is unmistakable. Transport secretary Geoff Hoon has an MA in law. Defence secretary John Hutton has a BA in civil law. Communities and Local Government minister Hazel Blears, responsible for construction-related matters such as housing and urban regeneration? She has…. a BA in law.

There’s little or no experience in business, either. Business secretary Lord Mandelson read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, before becoming director of the British Youth Council, and then getting elected to Lambeth Council and going on to join London Weekend Television. For once in my life, I wish that someone had some experience in – yes! – accountancy.

The provenance of the Conservative Shadow Cabinet is little different. It’s true that David Cameron was a spin doctor for the television firm Carlton Communications, that William Hague (foreign affairs) claims a Masters in Business Administration and a stint with management consultants McKinsey, and that Liam Fox (defence) was once a doctor. Theresa May (work and pensions) was once interned at the Bank of England, while Alan Duncan (Shadow leader of the Commons) was, like the Liberals’ Vincent Cable, once with Shell. But despite its old reputation as the arm of big business, today’s Conservative Party is, like Labour, more run by renegade lawyers than by precision-conscious engineers. Take Tory chairman Eric Pickles. He pretty much began employment with a decade on Bradford council. His trajectory exemplifies how Conservative leaders have done more time in local authorities than they have in global corporations.

Over in China, members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party have long been engineers, even if, today, the trend in membership is toward the social sciences – particularly economics. Given the policies of China’s leadership, it’s obvious that engineering qualifications are no guarantee of political rectitude. But the absence of any leanings, among British political leaders, toward engineering – that’s a problem too.

(The author spent some of his gap year at PA Technology and Science Centre, graduated in physics, and was once head of worldwide market intelligence at Philips consumer electronics in the Netherlands.)

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