What did they do all day?

In the case of the British cabinet, one can tell a lot by the jobs Ministers held before taking office.

Prime Minister David Cameron worked in public relations before taking office [AFP]
Prime Minister David Cameron worked in public relations before taking office [AFP]

Earlier this week, the International Monetary Fund revised its forecast of the economy for the United Kingdom. Instead of 0.2 per cent growth in 2012, the Fund now reckons the UK economy will contract by 0.4 per cent. The revision isn’t a huge surprise. The British economy has been contracting since the last quarter of 2011. Whatever one thinks of GDP as a measure of prosperity, the government’s economic policy isn’t succeeding on its own terms.

Cuts in public expenditure were meant to prompt a boom in investment by a suddenly emboldened private sector. This hasn’t happened. Public debt continues to rise to bridge the gap between weak tax receipts and the costs of high unemployment. “Expansionary fiscal contraction” has joined “Progressive Conservatism” in the dustbin reserved for oxymoronic phrases that turn out to be straightforwardly moronic.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor remain committed to the current course. They appear to have the backing of the rest of the Cabinet. Given the failure of the policy and the apparent insouciance of its architects, it is worth looking in a little more detail at this handful of individuals who are collectively responsible for the conduct of government. The current Cabinet consists of the Prime Minister and twenty-one Ministers in charge of major departments of state. A further nine individuals normally attend its meetings and the Attorney General attends “when Ministerial responsibilities are on the agenda“. So a total of 32 people make up the executive committee of the British government.

Where do they come from? What did they do before they ran the country?

Politicos before and after

Looking at their published biographies, the most popular career choice among those destined to join the Cabinet was the financial sector, broadly defined. Nine of them worked in banking, accountancy and management consultancy. Blue-blooded investment banks make a particularly strong showing. Lazards and Rothschilds both have former employees at the Cabinet table, Andrew Mitchell and Oliver Letwin respectively. Two Cabinet Ministers worked in property development (Iain Duncan Smith and Philip Hammond) before entering Parliament. Given the structural connections between profitable development and credit expansion, it might be more accurate to say that eleven of the thirty-two worked in finance at one time or another.

Seven members of the Cabinet have worked in the communications sector. The Prime Minister David Cameron has worked in public relations, as have his conservative colleagues Chris Grayling and Jeremy Hunt (albeit briefly). The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg worked as a lobbyist and the Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was head of communications for the European Movement and Britain in Europe between 1996 and 2004. Maria Miller worked in advertising while Michael Gove made a glistening name for himself as a journalist at News International.

Six members of the current Cabinet worked in the law. Two are solicitors, the rest barristers. They are the largest professional group. There are also two former soldiers (Andrew Mitchell and Iain Duncan Smith). There are no doctors, nurses, or schoolteachers, although a couple have done some university teaching (Vince Cable and Theresa Villiers).

George Osborne and Eric Pickles have only ever worked in politics. Apart from a stint at the Centre for Policy Studies, David Willetts was also employed by the conservative party for much of the time before he entered Parliament. There are as many outright politicos as there are people who have worked in manufacturing. Iain Duncan Smith worked for Marconi in the eighties for a while, Philip Hammond worked for a medical equipment manufacturer. It is interesting to note that both of them became property developers instead. The march of the makers, indeed. Owen Paterson spent several years in the leather business.

Two members of the Cabinet – Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps – could have been described as dot.com entrepreneurs in the 1990s. Only one member of the Cabinet, Patrick McLoughlin, has done much in the way of manual labour. He has been an agricultural labourer and a miner. Meanwhile, only Lord Strathclyde has spent a considerable of time managing his estates.

A world of appearances

A rough and ready assessment of work experience misses a great deal, of course. For example, through his father the Prime Minister is a major beneficiary of the offshore financial regime. And while a backbencher, Cameron sat on the board of Urbium, a company that made money from turning high streets into factories for mass producing drunk people. I’ve always thought that that gives you the true measure of the man. Like Cameron Osborne is a wealthy aristocrat. The Cabinet as a whole is remarkably rich. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are motivated by simple-minded selfishness, even if we have to acknowledge the possibility.

I don’t want to score cheap points by pointing out how narrow a range of work the Cabinet have done. Representative government has always been a magnet for highly unrepresentative people (mind you, the fact that there are only four women is pretty amazing). Nor do I want to be snide about their achievements. If their business efforts tended towards get-rich-quick schemes rather than steady institution-building, this is to be expected. To reach the Cabinet they must have been focussed on office above all for much of their adult life. These are people in a hurry.

But their previous jobs tell us something significant about the skills and habits of mind they bring to the conduct of politics in a time of economic crisis. While the law has always been well represented in politics, it is the predominance of the finance and communications sectors that is really striking. Investment bankers and management consultants make their fortunes by being plausible over short distances. They are superb salesmen and gifted, if unforgiving, students of human nature. The truth is for someone else to worry about, what matters is the deal and the story that will secure it. Public relations and the media also offer an education in how facts can be finessed in order to exercise influence. As in corporate finance, appearances take precedence over reality. Sincerity and high moral tone are things to be impersonated for the benefit of audiences. They cannot be permitted to interfere with business.

Faced with huge social problems a Minister with a background in public relations might be temped to resort to emotionally appealing populism and ignore the kinds of structural reforms that would endanger the advantages people like him (or her, possibly) had accumulated. On Tuesday the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced that people who killed intruders would not face prosecution unless they acted in a “grossly disproportionate” way. As it happens, Chris Grayling worked for the public relations conglomerate Burson Marsteller after a career in television production.

More generally, people with these backgrounds don’t seem terribly likely to shake off the old orthodoxy. They are clearly determined, and perhaps even ruthless. But they seem remarkably incurious. Even the clever ones can’t shake the aura of stupidity. Most of them have made their fortunes in the world of appearances. They went along with the prevailing wisdom, they became eloquent proponents of it. It served them well. But reality is now beginning to intrude, in the shape of an intractable political and economic crisis.

Given the terrible job the media have done in recent years, the perversion of the political process brought about by lobbying, and the disastrous consequences of financial sector dominance for the rest of the economy, the present Cabinet doesn’t look much like a group capable of finding a solution. In fact it looks eerily like the problem in miniature.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.

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