Answers to Questions

Last week I invited people to ‘Ask me Anything‘ and got some great questions in response, from ‘If you lived in America, where would you stand politically?’ to ‘If you knew everything that you know now, and could travel back to 2019 you, would you tell them to still back Boris?’ Here I do my best to answer them.

Before I do though, I’ve had a few people ask what some of the ‘imagined editorial conversations‘ were in the last post. I imagine most of you got some of them, but perhaps few got all so, for those wondering, they were, in order:

  1. Mary Poppins
  2. Magneto, from X-Men
  3. A Civil Campaign, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga
  4. David Gemmell’s Rigante novels
  5. The Winds of War/War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
  6. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

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If you lived in America, where would you stand politically?

I think I’d be politically homeless.

I’m a strong believer in universal healthcare and am not keen on guns, which would make voting for the Republicans difficult. Economically, I’d generally lean mildly right, though it has to be said that some of what Biden has done on the Inflation Reduction Act is pretty good (for the US, at least – it poses some challenges for the UK).

The Democrats are completely beyond the pale on cultural issues though, both nationally and in terms of what is happening in school and police systems in ‘blue’ states, so I’d also find it hard to vote for them.

At national level I’d be a swing voter, and would just have to hope for some more moderate candidates at state level!

What’s your preferred funding model for universities in the UK?

In an ideal world, a fee:grant ratio of about 1:2 or 1:3 – some contribution from the student is OK, but ideally with the majority paid by grant, and at a level where a typical graduate would pay off their loan in their early 30s. This would also let us fund courses based on cost, rather than over-funding some and under-funding others.

This would be combined with student number controls, as in the HEFCE days – the Government sets the overall number and the regulator/funding council figures out the exact university-by-university cap. This would let us have a sensible discussion on whether we wanted additional funding to go on unit of resource, support for students or expanding numbers, rather than all new funding going on the latter with the other two getting caanibalised to fund expansion, as happens now.

If you knew everything that you know now, and could travel back to 2019 you, would you tell them to still back Boris?

Yes. Brexit was a once in a generation, perhaps once in a century, significance-level event – I believe there’s a good chance it will make the difference between the UK being an independent country in 2100, rather than part of a federal EU. Boris was the only person who could break the deadlock and get Brexit done – and for all his flaws, he achieved that.

More broadly, while there’s a lot I could criticise about our response to COVID, on a global level I think we did about averagely, and I’d rather have had Boris in charge than Hunt or Corbyn, the other two options in 2019. He probably got us in more trouble than we needed to with spending, but on the other hand was outstanding on Ukraine.

I don’t defend Partygate at all and it was clear he had to go. I wish we’d been able to see what he’d have done without COVID – there might have been more fiscal space to deliver on the ‘tack to the economic left’ that Levelling Up and the 2019 manifesto promised, and keep the new coalition together. Or maybe it would all have collapsed in some other way. Regardless, he was the right man for the right hour in 2019.

Your thoughts on the next election. Specifically, what do you think each main party’s “angle” will be and what those parties need to say/do to get YOUR vote.

Labour needs to not screw up, continue projecting the competent and uncontroversial vibe, and make sure they’re saying reassuringly centrist things on issues such as patriotism, defence, crime and culture. Starmer seems to be – understandably – focusing relentlessly on this tactic right now, and given they’re currently 18 points ahead in the polls, the election is theirs to lose.

The Tories have a mountain to climb. They have to restore their reputation for competence, get the economy on an even keel again, earn forgiveness for Trussonomics AND deliver on some of the knottiest issues in public service, such as small boats, NHS waiting lists and crime, where charge rates are low. These aren’t all their fault – but if the electorate decide it’s your fault, you’re stuffed. Ultimately, delivery matters.

Sunak’s done a good job of steadying the ship, through a series of sensible, considered, well-received policies (such as the Windsor Agreement) and the polls are gradually narrowing. They’ll narrow further as inflation falls – which it will – and the economy recovers. But even if that gets Labour down to a 5-10 point lead, the voters still might well decide, after 14 years, that it’s time for a change. It’s not impossible, but the odds are against them.

I’m not sure what the Lib Dem’s ‘angle’ will be. I thought they had a clear niche in 2019 as the unambiguously pro-EU party, but I was wrong, they fluffed it and have been languishing at 9% in the polls ever since.

In terms of my vote, as a Conservative party member and someone who’s been quietly and increasingly impressed by Sunak, I’ll be voting for them. But if I was a swing voter, what Starmer would need to do to impress me is deliver genuine, thought through, deliverable plans – that I believed he was going to do – to build a lot more houses, dramatically shorten the time it takes to build energy infrastructure, and stop regulating childcare out of existence. Those are some of the three biggest issues holding back the country, which no-one has got a grip on for the last 25+ years, and Britain’s the poorer for it.

Do you support dropping the use of GDP as the yardstick by which the economic (and wider) success of nations is measured and evaluated?

To paraphrase Churchill, it’s the worst form of measurement apart from all the others. To be pernickety, I do prefer GDP per capita though, as in general well-being of the population is more important to the conversation than total wealth (unless you’re squaring up against a hostile power).

GDP does correlate remarkably well with a whole range of things we care about, whether that’s education, life-expectancy and so on. It’s not perfect and it has some unfortunate edge cases: such as the fact that a parent who goes to work and pays their whole salary for another person to look after their children contributes to GDP, whereas both people not working wouldn’t. I believe that Robert Kennedy said it best. So you should pay attention to other things do, and look at what you’re doing, not make it your god.

That being said, stagnating GDP per capita causes real problems, as we’ve been finding here in the UK for the last fifteen years. It hits the cost of living, it hits public services, it brings down the quality of life. So yes, in general, it’s a pretty good yardstick.

What advice would you give to a mid-ranking (G7 or G6) civil servant in the policy profession who wants to have a successful career within it?

Great question! Work hard, seek to overdeliver, drive timescales, push and hustle against the constraints or people telling you to go slower, talk to the people you need to in the organisation or delivery partners to get stuff done, don’t take no for an answer. Ask for forgiveness, not permission (unless you’re planning to write a controversial public essay on Brexit, in which case ask permission first). I love the civil service, but there is a huge institutional bias to inertia, delay and playing it safe which you have to overcome: successful and ambitious delivery is noticed and recognised, and senior civil servants want people who can get things done in the system.

Try to work in areas that are close to the centre and where you will be noticed by senior people: in practice, that means Private Office, No. 10, Cabinet Office or Treasury, or possibly the big thing that your Department is regularly on the front page of the papers for. Don’t underestimate the importance to promotion of senior people (Director or DG) knowing you exist and thinking you are good – this matters even more now promotion boards are gone. Capable senior people will bring in people they know can deliver into their Groups or Directorates, and you want to be one of them. When you’re taking a role, think about what it will give you that you can talk about on promotion: everyone knows what working on a Bill Team is (regardless of the Bill).

Ignore the faddish edicts that come around that say ‘to get to Level X, everyone must have come Y’. They never last and are almost never enforced. Play the corporate game, take up corporate roles – they’re seen as important and a good way to network – find some way that doesn’t conflict with your values to have something in the diversity space (mentoring people or supporting L&D are good options).

Overall though, take jobs you enjoy – there are some really fantastic roles out there. The joy is in the journey. I’m fairly satisfied with how far I got in my career before I left, but ultimately it’s the experiences that I treasure most not the final grade.

What changes would you make to the education system if you had free rein?

Gosh, this is one of those ‘summarise your day job in three paragraphs’ questions!

If I genuinely had free rein, I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big fan of grammar schools. Like many middle-class families, we’ve just handed over an eye-wateringly large amount of money to buy a house in the catchment area of the best school in the neighbourhood, and it continues to perplex me that otherwise sensible and progressive people think this is a fairer way to allocate the best school places than a test based on ability, even if that test is imperfect.

If that’s off the table, I’m a strong believer in the Gove/Gibb playbook: knowledge rich curriculum, phonics, evidence-based methods in teaching, rigorous GCSEs/A-Levels, strong behaviour policies, academies, Free Schools and so on. There are minor tweaks I’d make, as we all would, but in general I’m supportive of the current direction, deepening it and defending it, and making it work as well as possible

More broadly, my biggest focus would be on rebalancing our post-18 system towards Further Education and Apprenticeships, and away from Higher Education. That would mean a combination of more funding, removing barriers and more broader support for the former, and restoring number controls and clamping down on low quality courses and grade inflation in the latter. I’ve spent a good part of my career over the last four years (or, arguably, 7 years) working on this.

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One thought on “Answers to Questions

  1. Great post! Thanks for answering the education question. I didn’t already know your opinions on any of that (sorry, I don’t follow you in your professional capacity).

    I agree strongly on paragraphs 1 and 3, and I think I agree on paragraph 2 as far as I understand it, but I confess I’m a bit hazy on what academies and free schools mean in practice.

    I’m very against the New Labour push to get 50% of young people into university, and its various consequences. I think more people need to realise that “more years of schooling for more people” isn’t necessarily the same as “a better-educated populace” and that the desirability of the latter doesn’t automatically justify the former, and that the former comes with a huge opportunity cost in money and young people’s time, and leads to a qualifications arms race and lowered standards. (Maybe I should do a post on this.)

    On grammar schools, I am very much in favour, but that might be my bias as an academically able person with academically able kids; I might feel differently if I had a child with intellectual (as opposed to social) additional needs. Grammar schools are definitely fairer than the private-schools-by-another-name system we have now, but abandoning the less able children to the rubbish schools isn’t good either; there’s an argument that they’re in more need of the support of a good teacher and that the bright kids would succeed wherever they ended up. OTOH, if the supply of good teachers is limited, it’s better for maximising the potential of society as a whole if they’re deployed in helping the bright kids to achieve their maximum potential than in bringing the below-average kids up to average. But some kind of system that incentivised the good teachers to be spread evenly across all schools would probably be better still.

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