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“A trade with its own skills and codes”

John Rentoul

johnmajor 300x281 A trade with its own skills and codesJohn Major is not keen on special advisers. Spend all their time chatting to journalists, causing trouble and never “touch the sides” of real life, apparently.

Never had any in his government, anyway, oh no. Apart from about as many as Margaret Thatcher had and Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the present lot. Including such policy specialists who never spoke to journalists as Tim Collins, Patrick Rock and David Cameron.

Major’s disapproval guarantees that special advisers are a Good Thing and that we should have more of them, in my view.

I much prefer the honesty of George Osborne, former special adviser, who, according to Janan Ganesh’s book The Austerity Chancellor, stands out against the nodding-herd wisdom:

Osborne … believes that politics is a trade with its own skills and codes that can only be learned on the job. It is not an amateur vocation for talented people from other fields, and he is never surprised when businessmen who have coined fortunes in the outside world flail and flounder in Westminster.

When Alan Johnson was mooted as Gordon Brown’s successor in the dying years of the last Labour government [by whom, we wonder], Osborne discounted the idea. The mod-turned-minister had lived a remarkable and rather inspiring life before entering Parliament at the relatively advanced age of 47, but Osborne saw his immersion in the real world as something of a disadvantage. He did not possess a lived knowledge of Westminster’s sinuous ways, unlike the Miliband brothers, or Ed Balls, or Andy Burnham, all former special advisers.

Hm. Osborne is wrong about Alan Johnson, and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, and about himself and David Cameron. Johnson would have been a fine prime minister, and membership of the special adviserdom conferred no great qualification for high office on the rest of them.

But he is right about one thing, which is that special advisers perform a complex and valuable role. Politics is a trade with a body of specialist knowledge required to do it well. Governments need good special advisers if they are to do what they have been elected to do, which is the essence of democracy.

Whether the special adviserdom is also a good training ground for the leaders of the future is another matter. It is one of many, and the preponderance of former special advisers in the leaderships of all three main parties is not a healthy mix.

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  • creggancowboy

    John Rentoul is better than Owen Jones & Grace Dent. Believe me, that is not a compliment!


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