Coffee House

Politics vs. experience

11 January 2013

Only in politics could you get someone appointed to a top job with zero experience. Quite often, you hear laments about how the UK has a defence secretary who has never fought, a Chancellor who has never run anything bigger than a raffle, a health secretary who has only ever been a user of the NHS. In America, by contrast, the president gets to pick who he likes — so you can have genuine experts. But there are exceptions to this rule.

One is John Nash, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who runs a charity which has set up a very successful school. He has just been appointed schools minister: a round peg in a round hole.

And Barack Obama has shown less interest in outside experience than any modern president (as the above graph from JP Morgan shows). So yes, our systems are different. But there is considerable latitude — for good, and for ill.

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  • Span Ows

    why is Obama’s in a different colour? Isn’t that racist? 😉

    • rugby god

      of course not! He is sure colour;blind (like all good sosherlists)

  • ButcombeMan

    It is not just in politics.

    Swathes of the Higher Civil Service are like this. People move from job to job, rarely developing any particular expertise.

    Some very senior Civil Servants never run anything very much

    Herr Flic, sorry Jeremy Heywood, being a classic example.

  • Curnonsky

    That should be “T Roosevelt”, not “Rossevelt”.

  • Daniel Maris

    As far as I know there is nothing in law or the constitution to prevent the appointment by the Queen (NOT the PM) of Cabinet Ministers who are neither MPs nor members of the House of Lords. Beaverbrook and Frank Cousins I believe are examples from within living memory.

    • Tom Tom

      Cousins was elected as MP in 1965 and appointed a Privy Councillor in 1964. The Privy Council is the Government of the Country; the Cabinet is an Executive Committee of The Privy Council

      • Daniel Maris

        From Wikipedia: “Cousins served as Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s Labour
        government from October 1964″ – so I was right. He served in teh government before he was elected an MP.

        Yes, I guess the Cabinet is the Politburo to the Privy Council’s Central Committee.

  • TomTom

    Prior to 1918 Government could be by expert but was not

  • 2trueblue

    What we need in the house of commons is people with experience and gravitas. One of our current problems is that the last government politicised the civil service and this government have to try and get value from those same people. It is impossible for people with little experience in the commercial world to quickly adapt to run a department but that is how it has always been. When I hear that we have MPs under 30yrs entering the HoC I get depressed.

    • telemachus

      All we need is effective communicators who understand the issues, have a moral compass and support of a technocratic competent civil service who can delive communicated policy without axe to grind
      Most experts have been a disaster and Nash will be no different
      Added to which he is as doctrinaire as the hated Gove

      • 2trueblue

        What we needed over 13yrs was competent, capable politicians, who were interested in what the country needed. What we got was the mess they left behind, and empty coffers.

      • rugby god

        your fucking moral compass is broken.

  • monty61

    Politicians are generally interchangeable and generally operate as front men (and occasionally women) for other people’s ideas, totally at the mercy of their department’s ability to implement.

    The few who are genuine thinkers or innovators – Keith Joseph, Frank Field – are generally useless at the real dark arts of doing politics and typically fail for all their grand intellect.

    Effective politicians (including PMs) are creatures of their time, adept at making things happen (or appear to make things happen) but not for coming up with fresh thinking themselves (with only the very occasional exception).

    • Dimoto

      All very true.
      And the numerous attempts to recruit “hard nosed business people” to run government departments have almost always ended in bewildered failure as the civil service does it’s thing.
      Nevertheless, ministers with some credible “back-story” must surely always be preferable to callow ex-SPADS/PPE grads.

  • In2minds

    And what does Sir Jeremy Heywood think of this?

    • Adrian Drummond

      It’s not part of his remit to make a judgement.

    • Puncheon

      It’s outside his remit, I expect.

      • ButcombeMan

        On the one hand he thinks…. on the other hand he does not…

  • Archimedes

    I don’t think it’s the difference you’re making out though, is it? The senior staff that actually implement policies in the UK either have a lot of Civil Service experience, or private sector experience. The politician only decides the policy, which isn’t really any different to in the US, only in the US it’s just the President that has the policy power, whereas in the UK it is split across several politicians. The reason for that is because in the UK we don’t actually elect a Prime Minister, we elect representatives in the Commons, and whoever is able to command a majority in the Commons is the de facto PM. So, really, it’s a question of democratic systems.


      I don’t think Civil Service experience is real experience at all however. And that is the problem. It is bad enough finding good managers in the real world, but almost impossible in the Civil Service. Those at the top of the Civil Service have no more experience of reality than most MPs. They are playing the same game in a virtual reality where nothing is true and everything is what it is made to appear to be.

  • Dogsnob

    You’re in a glass house Fraser. Put down that stone.

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