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Dr. Alexander Brown

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The Day the Minister Came

Posted: 25/05/2012 10:33

I've often wondered what it might feel like to turn up to a Union meeting, Women's Institute lunch, writers' guild workshop, or cub scout jamboree only to discover that it had been chosen as the location for a major political speech or policy announcement by a leading politician. Now I know. It feels perverse and uncomfortable.

In the last few weeks political philosophers at the University of East Anglia have been hosting a series of public lectures under the banner 'Philosopher Kings?', in which leading politicians have been invited to reflect explicitly on how philosophy, ideas, and ideology have influenced their political lives and the politics of the day.

So far Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman have handled the brief by accounting for how ideational experiences have shaped their own political journeys and by making philosophical arguments about why the left needs to re-engage with civil society politics and to reassert traditional values such as faith, patriotism, and solidarity. In the coming weeks Jonathon Porritt and Ros Scott will try their hands at green political theory and the battle between principles and pragmatism.

Yesterday it was the turn of David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, and he struck a very different tone.

He started with a few party political points on how the Coalition inherited a black hole in the public finances and went on to simply assert that what we owe the next generation is growth not deficit.

He then swung into a full-scale ministerial policy announcement on how ring-fencing the Research Councils' budget, creating more public-private research enterprises, securing business internships for science, technology, engineering, and maths postgraduate research students, and creating a kind of departmental Tomorrow's World that can predict future money-spinning science and technology amounts to good government.

Yet Willetts' audience was made up almost entirely of students, lecturers and members of the public with a particular interest in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Not that this seemed to matter much. The Minister's opening gambit was: 'I am not going to start with abstract principles and then deduct the consequences for public policy. That sort of argument does not persuade people any more, if it ever did.'

This left much of the audience dumbstruck − isn't that precisely what philosophy is all about?

To borrow some lyrics from the song 'E's are good' by the 90s dance band, The Shaman, David Willetts has been 'very much maligned and misunderstood'. Or so he would like us to think. The problem is that so long as he continues to pay no attention to who he is speaking to he is likely to remain maligned and misunderstood.

Not unreasonably the audience had expected David both to talk personally and to think philosophically.

Perhaps they also wanted him to try to charm them, to rehabilitate his image in the aftermath of the controversial tuition fees debate; the decision of the AHRC to break the Haldane Principle regarding university research (by tying research grants to the Conservative's concept of the Big Society); the move to force academics in the arts and humanities to prove financial impact as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

At the very least they thought he could have attempted a rear-guard action against the previous speakers in the series (Cruddas and Glasman) who, philosophically speaking, are moving into terrain occupied by Cameron's One-Nation Conservativism ('we're all in this together').

Not a bit of it. Debating with the Minister was a bit like trying to dance the salsa with someone who is hell bent on dancing the tango.

The Conservatives need people like David Willetts − he is a man of great intellect and rigour, as demonstrated by his book The Pinch. But what those in the university sector need is for the Universities Minister to recognise and engage with them for who they are. Not everyone who studies or works at university is a scientist, engineer or mathematician - and long may that continue.

 
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