A bluffer’s guide to be­ing in charge

Nick Hill­man dis­putes a nar­ra­tive that as­sumes all would be well if ‘ex­perts’ were put in charge

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Nick Hill­man is the di­rec­tor of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute and pre­vi­ously worked as spe­cial ad­viser in White­hall.


By James Ball and An­drew Green­way Bite­back, 128pp, £10.00

ISBN 9781785904110 Pub­lished 16 Au­gust 2018

This is an un­usual book. It is a lu­cid at­tack on white, mid­dle-class men in pol­i­tics, White­hall and the me­dia writ­ten by two white, mid­dle-class men work­ing in the me­dia, one of whom pre­vi­ously worked in White­hall. It slams the Univer­sity of Ox­ford’s PPE (Phi­los­o­phy, Pol­i­tics and Eco­nomics) course for teach­ing peo­ple to “blag” about top­ics of which they know lit­tle. Yet the au­thors are two young PPE grad­u­ates with lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence.

A third of the book is de­voted to a de­tailed ac­count of how to sur­vive PPE at Ox­ford. This is unil­lu­mi­nat­ing be­cause the unique­ness of the course is ex­ag­ger­ated. For ex­am­ple, the au­thors claim that PPE owns the con­cept of an “es­say cri­sis”, which is de­scribed as “an ob­scure barb re­lat­ing to one univer­sity de­gree” rather than the more gen­eral suf­fer­ing that it is. At times, I was left won­der­ing if they have ever met any­one with an­other de­gree from a dif­fer­ent univer­sity.

The scat­ter­gun crit­i­cisms are also over the top. For in­stance, the book says that West­min­ster lobby jour­nal­ists ex­ist to en­able gov­ern­ment min­is­ters to avoid speak­ing to spe­cial­ist me­dia. This is full-on non­sense. The lobby is there to re­port par­lia­men­tary af­fairs, and you only have to open a news­pa­per to see how of­ten min­is­ters in­ter­act with spe­cial­ist jour­nal­ists.

The pro­posed pol­icy ideas for solv­ing the sup­posed prob­lems in how we are gov­erned are min­nows. Get­ting jour­nal­ists to ex­plain their in­cor­rect pre­dic­tions, hav­ing a lit­tle more scru­tiny of of­fi­cials by se­lect com­mit­tees and en­cour­ag­ing re­cruit­ment from the whole Rus­sell Group, not just Oxbridge, are tiny changes if the prob­lems iden­ti­fied in this book are any­where near the whole truth.

Nei­ther the lack of ev­i­dence nor the spe­cific pol­icy con­clu­sions are the big­gest flaw, how­ever. It is the over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive, which as­sumes all would be well if only we were to put the “ex­perts” in charge. That sounds lovely, but it leaves three ques­tions hang­ing. Iron­i­cally, given the book’s ob­ses­sion with PPE, one is philo­soph­i­cal, one po­lit­i­cal and one eco­nomic.

First, to which ex­perts should we lis­ten? In higher ed­u­ca­tion, are the ex­perts the stu­dents, the staff or the arm’s-length bod­ies with long in­sti­tu­tional mem­o­ries? It can’t be all of them be­cause they of­ten dis­agree and di­a­logue be­comes bogged down. In­deed, non-ex­perts are crit­i­cal to good gov­er­nance be­cause they cure block­ages.

Sec­ond, what does ex­per­tise mean? The au­thors as­sume that politi­cians, civil ser­vants and jour­nal­ists can­not be ex­perts be­cause they move from role to role and topic to topic. But this process makes them ex­pert in, re­spec­tively, po­lit­i­cal mat­ters, keep­ing the show on the road and con­vey­ing news. Those are vo­ca­tional spe­cialisms. It may be un­fash­ion­able to say so, but the UK’s post­war eco­nomic suc­cess re­lied more on the skills and ex­per­tise of those in White­hall and West­min­ster than luck or “blag­ging”. So will de­liv­er­ing suc­cess af­ter Brexit.

Fi­nally, how can we give ex­perts all the power when their main de­mand is gen­er­ally “more money”? That is not an an­swer be­cause, once you have given the ed­u­ca­tion and health ex­perts their ex­tra re­sources, you will not have enough left for those in de­fence and hous­ing. Some­one has to in­ter­vene. It is re­gret­table that the PPE grad­u­ates who wrote this book have for­got­ten that eco­nomics is, above all, the study of scarcity.

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