Changes in the Political Class and its Culture




W.L. GUTTSMAN’S classic study of the British political elite was completed nearly thirty years ago.’ It dealt in some detail with the changing social and educational backgrounds and political style of MPs and Cabinet ministers. Less exhaustively it also dealt with the changing culture of the recruitment process. Apart from more up to date studies of the social backgrounds of politicians by Burch and Moran2 and their career patterns by King3, the subject has been neglected in recent years.


This article describes and analyses some of the main social and stylistic changes among the British political class in the past two decades. The term political class enables us to look not only at politicians, including Cabinet ministers and Prime Ministers, but also civil servants and, for want of a better term, political entrepreneurs. The last refers to political advisors, members of think-tanks, researchers and others who, holding no formal party position, contribute to the formulation of party policy.



In the election of party leaders there has been a modest broadening of the opportunity for participation over the past two decades. Both the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, partly out of a commitment to participation but also because of a shortage of MPs as electors, extended the election of the party leaders to the membership at large.


In the Conservative Party the system of election of the party leader by a secret ballot of MPs was modified in 1975 to allow for the incumbent to be challenged. Until then the party had a procedure for election of the leader, introduced in 1965 but not for a challenge to or dismissal of the incumbent. Under the new system Mrs. Thatcher deposed Mr. Heath and went on to win the leadership. Sir Anthony Meyer in 1989 was the first to use the machinery to mount a challenge, when he stood against Mrs. Thatcher, the first time a party leader and Prime Minister had been so challenged. His action overturned assumptions about the ‘unthinka­bility’ of challenging a Prime Minister. In 1990 Mr. Heseltine challenged Mrs. Thatcher and gathered such a large minority of support that he forced her resignation. In 1975 the Conservative Party had adopted a mechanism for overthrowing and replacing a party leader: in 1990 it demonstrated that the system could be used to dismiss a Prime Minister and elect a successor.


Until 1976 Labour’s machinery for electing a party leader had only been used when the party was in opposition. In 1976, however, when Harold Wilson retired, the votes of Labour MPs were used, for the first time, to elect a leader and Prime Minister. In 1981 the party made the most radical changes in its arrangements. The election of the party leader and deputy leader, once the preserve of MPs, has since then, been opened to the party membership, organised in an electoral college of affiliated trade unions, constituency parties, and MPs, with the last having only 30% of the total college vote.  In addition, sitting MP’s hitherto, virtually guaranteed renomination, have to undergo a reselec­tion in the lifetime of the Parliament.


The introduction of these changes had less to do with party democ­racy than a battle about power. For all the competing claims about the political sovereignty of Parliament or Party Conference, independence of MPs and accountability of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the membership, the reforms were pushed by the political left as a means of extending its power and resisted by the political right as a means of protecting its power4. What is so remarkable is that in spite of the constitutional changes, designed to close the gap between the myth of the sovereignty of Conference and the autonomy in practice of the parliamentary leaders, the parliamentary domination of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock is as strong as ever. Mr. Kinnock regularly gets his way on the National Executive Committee, ran a highly personalised general election campaign in 1987, and Conference has acquiesced in a policy review which has buried many left-wing policies. In spite of the mandatory reselection, some 70% of MPs in the last Parliament were renominated without a contest. In so far as the constitutional reforms, an undoubted achievement of the left in the early l980s, were designed to make the party safe for socialism and the leaders beholden to the allegedly left-wing grass-roots, they have failed.


If one turns to the educational background of MPs, it is no surprise to find that the Conservatives are still overwhelmingly public school and Oxbridge. But the slight trend to greater social representatives in the post-war Parliaments has speeded up since 1970. New Conservative MPs in recent Parliaments have increasingly been educated at state secondary schools and non-Oxbridge universities. In 1970 only 12% of Conservative graduate MPs had been to a non-Oxbridge university: in 1987 the figure was 38%. In 1983 and 1987 there were record lows of

12% and 11%. of old Etonians among Conservative MPs. In the 1970 Parliament 25% had attended Eton, Harrow or Winchester; in the 1987 Parliament the figure was down to 15%, and only 7% of the new MPs. This feature is part of a drift in the Conservative Party from the upper middle class and of that class from a political career5. Table 1 shows the steady reduction in Conservative MPs with prestigious public school (ie private education) backgrounds.


There has also been a steady increase in Conservative MPs with experience in local government. But although 40% in 1987 had such



1. The Changing Educational Background of Conservative MPs

                                            1970 (330)     1987 (376)         1987 intake (53)                                                                                


Oxford                                 90                    90                       14                                                    ](49%)             ](44%)                ](41%) Cambridge                            71                    76                        8                                                                  

Other                                   38(12%)           97   (38%)           14  (28%)     



Eton                                    59]                   43]                          3]         
Harrow                               14] (25%)          8 ]  (15%)              1] (7%) Winchester                            9]                     4]                          -]

Other Private                    161 (50%)         201  (53%)              28 (53%)                                    

Private School &              147 (51%)          194 (51%)           123 (43%)





served as local councillors, only two of the 22 members of Mrs. Thatcher’s final Cabinet had done so. John Major and Clement Attlee are the only two out of nine premiers since 1945 to have served politically in local government.


Labour MPs are increasingly middle class, white-collar and university educated. Between 1945 and 1987 the proportion of graduates on Labour benches increased from 33% to 56% (on the Conservative side the increase was from 59% to 69%). Traditionally, several Labour MPs rose out of the working class in adulthood by becoming MPs. Today many Labour MPs are ‘meritocrats’, first-generation graduates of universities, from working-class or lower-middle-class homes, ie the rise into the middle class has been achieved before entry to Parliament. This has been a consequence of the gradual shift from manual to service jobs in the occupational structure of society, the expansion of higher education and the increase in relatively open careers like teaching and welfare. This middle-classness of the two main parties has resulted in a sharp decline of the knights of the shires on the Tory benches and loyalist trade unionists on Labour benches.

Nearly two fifths of Labour MPs are now drawn from the communicating’ occupations (largely school teachers, lecturers in further and higher education, and researchers, see Table 2). In 1987 a quarter of the party’s MPs and a third of its candidates were lecturers or teachers and one in ten had worked in local government. If Labour’s middle class is drawn in the main from the public sector, particularly the social services and teaching, the Conservative middle class is drawn largely from the private sector (particularly law).


2. The Importance of ‘Communicators’ among Labour MPs

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1970 (288)       1987 (229)

School                                                         37                    29 Teachers                                                                                                       Lecturers, consultants, scientific                    33                    34 researchers                                                                                
Journalists, publishers, political and group      11                  12



Total ‘communicators’                                108                   89                         
Per cent                                                        37%                38%                                                                                     



There has been a modest shift in the direction of greater social representativeness of MPs in terms of gender and race. In the 1987 general election a record number of 243 women candidates were selected by the three main parties and a record 41 were elected. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats provide for the inclusion of at least one woman on every short-list. In the 1987 Parliament there was a record number of four black and Asian MPs (all Labour). Labour’s new rule of electing at least three women to the Shadow Cabinet ensures that any future Labour government will have a record number of women Cabinet ministers. Like the Democratic party in the United States, the Labour Party is moving in the direction of giving representa­tion to members of hitherto neglected social groups as of right in the Party


Further up the political ladder one notes that in recent Conservative Cabinets, there has been a steady reduction of Old Etonians, Old Harrovians, and products of other prestigious public schools. Although Mrs. Thatcher’s 1990 Cabinet had 16 Oxbridge graduates, only seven (Howe, Belstead, Hurd, King, Wakeham, Gummer and Brooke) went to prestigious public schools. The reaction against high social status was seen in the second ballot of the Conservative leadership election in 1990. John Major celebrated his ‘classlessness’, leaving school at 16, not attending university, drawing unemployment benefit as a young man, and being a ‘man of the people’. Douglas Hurd, the old Etonian and ex-President of the Cambridge Union, and Foreign Office diplomat, claimed that he also was of modest social origins. Lord Whitelaw was moved to protest against the apparent tendency to regard a privileged background as a disadvantage to a leader. John Major follows Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath in having attended a grammar school, all being first generation national politicians. The top of the Conservative Pam’ is a very different world from that described by W. L. Guttsman.


Labour’s front-bench represents the triumph of the 1944 Education Act and the now virtually extinct 11+ examination. Most shadow ministers went in the 1950s and 1960s to grammar schools, many of which have since turned independent or comprehensive. The Shadow Cabinet has as many graduates from Hull University (with Hatterslev, Prescott and McNamara) or Edinburgh (Smith, Brown, Cooke) as from Oxford, (Blair, Kaufman and Gould) and none come from Cambridge.


But one feature has not changed. Mrs. Thatcher was as likely as her predecessors to move around her Cabinet ministers. The turnover rate of two years as head of a department is still one of the highest in the West. In the last Thatcher Cabinet the median minister had served in three departments (excluding service in the Whips’ Office) before the post he then occupied. One gain from this accumulated experience of different departments could be that ministers’ generalist knowledge ma increase and the quality of Cabinet deliberations improve. There was some clustering of the departmental experiences. Of the 19 Cabinet ministers who sat in the Commons, seven had previous experience in the Whips’ Office and seven had served in the Treasury; four served in both. Experience in two of the most centrally oriented departments—. those concerned with the economy and with party discipline—was a feature of Mrs. Thatcher’s Cabinet ministers.

For all the available data on social background it is not immediately obvious what its implications are for the behaviour and values of politicians. Will a better educated (in terms of graduates largely in the arts and social sciences) House be more ideological, more interested in abstract ideas? In the case of Labour, does the decline in the numbers of former manual workers and the embourgeoisement (when elected) of former workers lead to a deradicalisation of views, as Michels claimed at the beginning of the century? Has the reduction of MPs from upper-class backgrounds led to a decline of the ‘One Nation’ outlook on the Conservative benches? Mrs. Thatcher once spoke disparagingly of the bourgeois guilt’ of her predecessors, claiming that their privileged backgrounds made them shrink from taking tough but necessary measures. Will Conservative MPs of a more modest social background, who owe so much to their own efforts (the recent memoirs of Norman Tebbit, Upwardly Mobile, and Lord Young, The Enterprise Years, are revealing in this respect), be less sympathetic to state provision of services and emphasise more the virtues of self-help and self-reliance? We do not know, but it seems most implausible that there should be a strong correlation between broad social background characteristics and values.


Prime Ministers

Studies of Prime Ministers are limited by the relatively small number, 17 since 1900, 10 since 1945. However, one social background trend is of interest. Five post-war premiers attended public school, and presti­gious ones at that, and five did not. Yet it is the first five premiers, from Attlee in 1945 to Home in 1964 who were educated at public school. Since then it has been the scholarship boys and girl. One has to go to the apex of British politics to find the meritocracy.

We have numerous typologies of the style and character of Prime Ministers and theories about whether the styles fluctuate cyclically strong premiers followed by consolidators, and so on) or are moving in a particular direction (the rise of Prime Ministerial government). The dynamic Lloyd George, for example, was overthrown in 1922 and followed by the ‘safe’, unspectacular and non-dynamic Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin~ the warrior leader Winston Churchill was followed by the less assertive Attlee. Mrs. Thatcher self-consciously rejected the leadership styles of Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Edward Heath which she associated with fudge and with trimming. But again one cannot push this too far. The idea seems to derive from the cyclical theory of political leadership that Arthur Schlesinger applies to Amer­ican Presidents. It is, however, more difficult to apply to British politics. Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Edward Heath (at least from 1972) presented themselves as spokesmen for their Cabinets, sought cooperation with trade unions and employers, and are associated with the power sharing politics of corporatism and incomes policies. It was a style of leadership that seemed to be discredited with the failure of income policies and disruption of services in 1979, and Labour’s defeat in the 1979 general election.


Mrs. Thatcher, partly because of her performance and partly because of her lengthy period of office, will continue to provide much material for the ‘power of the PM’ debate. Though a Conservative, she was deeply dissatisfied with the condition of British society and economy she inherited. She was a political mobiliser, wanting to change attitudes, institutions and policies. She paraded her beliefs and convictions and celebrated the tutelary role of political leadership. Ivor Crewe com­mented, ‘Not since Gladstone has Britain been led by such an opinion­ated and evangelical prime minister’. It is all very different from another Conservative Premier who once said that if people wanted a sense of purpose they should get it from bishops not from politicians.

Yet the evidence about public attitudes to the Thatcher style of leadership is ambiguous. Many voters seem to have voted Conservative in the 1980s while disliking much of Mrs Thatcher’s approach. Cer­tainly the evidence of Gallup polls is that people prefer a more conciliatory and consultative style of government, eg meeting groups and other countries halfway rather than sticking to one’s own position, and cooperating with unions and employers in making economic policy8.

Mrs. Thatcher had a strong sense of the sovereignty of the British state, the authority of (her) government, and the power of her office. Many of her ministers, domestic pressure groups and outside bodies like the European Commission, felt the force of this assertiveness. While Edward Heath created the Central Policy Review Staff and Harold Wilson set up the Downing Street Policy Unit in 1974. she made no such changes to the office of Prime Minister; any expansion of Prime Ministerial power was largely a consequence of her forceful person­ality. She ran economic and foreign policies independently of her Chancellor of Exchequer and Foreign Secretary; she fired or transferred two Foreign Secretaries in humiliating circumstances; and she kept strict control of the Cabinet agenda (ostensibly the cause of Michael Heseltine’s resignation at the time of Westland). Over the past decade, commentators increasingly saw Number 10 as a powerhouse separate from the Cabinet. Here is a peacetime model of the premiership which has been undeniably successful in terms of achieving policy objectives and winning general elections. It has also been a self-conscious repudia­tion of the style of her immediate predecessors. All the same, the circumstances of her downfall provide a warning. Over time, the

accumulated resignations and dismissals from her government and the many bruised egos on the backbenchers made her vulnerable when the leadership contest coincided with a bad patch for her and the government.

It will be interesting to see whether she will set a new trend or breed a reaction: will the mobiliser be followed by the consolidator, the presidential style by collective Cabinet rule? In view of the limited changes in the office, much will depend on the assessment of her personal style. Although she built up the Downing Street Policy Unit, in part to promote her own agenda, she did not develop a Prime Minister’s Department. The Thatcher record and downfall are sure to fascinate historians. Her record demonstrates how circumstances, political skill and personality can radically shape the power rating of a British Prime Minister. And her fall was probably due more to the perceptions among many Tory MPs that they would be more likely to win an election under somebody else and that another leader would be more likely to reform or abolish the poll tax.


But perhaps Mrs. Thatcher illustrates a trend towards more prime-ministerial government than the cycle of personal over collective rule. By this one refers to the pressures on the Prime Minister to become involved in major decisions, expectation of the public that he or she will authoritatively express the government’s views, and demands from pressure groups for the premier to show an interest in their concerns. The reflections of Lord Hunt of Tanworth (Secretary of the Cabinet, 1973-79) on the difficulties of running a collective (ie Cabinet) execu­tive are relevant here9. His view is that Cabinet government suffers today because of the excessive departmental load on ministers, the lack of collective briefing body for the Cabinet as a whole and, regardless of the character of Mrs Thatcher or any other incumbent, the pressures on the Prime Minister to intervene across the board. In large part these include the increase in summitry and the speed of modern communica­tions under which Prime Ministers are expected to react quickly to the latest developments. As Secretary to the Cabinet, Lord Hunt found that an increasing amount of his time was taken with advising the Prime Minister than with running the business of the Cabinet Office. Advo­cates of the creation of a Prime Minister’s Department take the view that Presidentialism is a fact of modern political life, and that British government should adopt to it.


In the face of these increased deands on Prime Ministers, what has given way in the post-war period has been the parliamentary role. The twice weekly Question Time in the House of Commons still takes a good deal of time in preparation. But a recent studs’ has dramatically shown how the number of statements and interventions in debates in the Commons by post-war premiers has declined. And compared to other British Premiers Sirs Thatcher’s parliamentary role was minimal”.


Civil Servants

It was often said that Mrs Thatcher attached more importance to individuals than to institutions. In this respect her lack of interest in 1~formiflg government institutions may have been a reaction against the activism of Heath and Wilson. But for all her institutional conservatism. she accepted the Next Steps programme, which may produce a radical transformation in the civil service by the end of the 1990s. She had a say in the appointment in the 1980s of virtually all Permanent Secret­aries and most Deputy Secretaries. There have been claims that she has politicised the service, but few impartial observers are convinced that this has happened. Her support for particular people was probably determined more by personal than political chemistry; she preferred to promote ‘doers’ even where this disturbed established lines of seniority.

Civil servants have had to compete with ministers receiving outside advice on policy, notably from the think-tanks outside Whitehall, and from Mrs Thatcher, supported by her Policy Unit. If, for much of the post-war era, many observers have been struck with the strength of departmentalism in Whitehall, under Mrs Thatcher one was impressed by the presence of a stronger centre. The tendency for Permanent Secretaries to have spent earlier years in the Treasury and. or the Cabinet Office, departments concerned with central coordination and planning, may also serve to increase in Whitehall what has been called a ‘centre


Many of the government’s policies, with a few exceptions for favoured parts of the public sector, seem to have been based on the dictum ‘public bad, private good’. Mrs Thatcher did not need the public choice school to reinforce her beliefs that much of the public sector was unproductive, self-serving and a parsitic drag on the wealth creating private sector. As a new Secretary of State for the Environment in 1979, Michael Heseltine informed his senior officials that he had made a million pounds before he was 30: what had they achieved? Mrs Thatcher is also alleged to have told Sir Ian Bancroft, then head of the service, ‘Clever people should not be here’. Certainly the civil service felt the lash of her actions as well as her tongue. Although an attempt to curb some of their ‘privileges’, notably index-linked pensions, came to nought, she reduced the size of the service by one seventh during her time.


The emphasis on changing the ethos of the service, to promote good management, cost-cutting and value for money. are the alleged virtues of what Professor Hood calls a new public management, imported largely from the private sector14. This thrust has been part of a wider political change, involving the encouragement of the market at the cost of the public sector and curbing the rise in public expenditure. Some of the qualities traditionally prized among policy-oriented senior adminis­trators, such as balance, judgement and a critically detached rather than enthusiastic appreciation of proposals to change the status quo, were not appreciated by Mrs Thatcher. The new emphasis is on setting objectives and allocating resources to realise them, performance appraisal, use of quasi-markets and contracting-out of services to encourage greater competition, and greater freedom to manage. As Professor Jackson observes, the language of public sector management has replaced that of public administration. The new culture has been reflected in the Raynor efficiency scrutinies, the Financial Management Initiative (FMI) and the Next Steps programme, under which many services will be transformed to agencies. The agencies will have their own chief executives, with control over staffing, salaries and goals, and will therefore, in theory, be more accountable.


We lack good evidence on the effects of the Thatcher “ears on the senior civil service. Has there been a decline in the sense of public service as a motivation for entering the civil service? Will the changes attract people with a strong interest in management, as opposed to people who are interested in policy formulation? Is there a greater perception of the civil service as deliverers of services to customers? Has there been a decline in the intellectual input to policy making? One does not have to be opposed to reform in principle to point to the imperfec­tions of some of the features of the education, health service and local taxation reforms. Brought in hurriedly, with a short period of time for consultation, they have had to be amended rapidly. The complaint of Sir Kenneth Clucas, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry until 1982, is that ministers have been too keen to achieve quick results and followed the line of ‘Give me the answer on one sheet of paper’.


The service has also experienced difficult-v in filling posts and retaining high quality people. Some part of the problem may be a matter of paving relatively low London salaries and increased competition from other sectors for the best and the brightest. Some may also be a matter of a perceived lack of appreciation of public service by the government. The problems are likely to increase in the next decade with the downturn in the number of young people entering the labour market and competition from other sectors.


On the other hand, some feature of Whitehall life have hardly changed at all. One is the relative lack of public interest. While 150 journalists are in the parliamentary lobby, only two or three are attached to Whitehall. David Walker, till recently of The Times, and Peter Hennessy of the Independent have been lonely pioneers. Training is still modest and departments are reluctant to release their best people for courses. Hennessy has recently quoted the head of the Civil Service College: ‘The fundamental philosophy is that you learn to do your job in government at your desk, not in a school’. In spite of demands for more outsiders to be brought in to top posts, as Sir John Hoskyns wanted. little has been done. Hoskyns, indeed, also called for the dismissal of everybody over 50 and the virtual politicisation of the service’. It is still an Oxbridge/Arts dominated higher civil service. Sir Peter Levene, at Defence Procurement, stands out because his appoint­ment is exceptional. It is not surprising that there is so little change in the soda1 background of top civil servants, as long as they are chosen from the ranks of the higher civil service.


Political Entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurs are a more shadowy group, simply because for many of them political activity is part-time or a by-product of other roles. We are familiar with the role of the early Fabians before 1914 in permeating elites with their policies acting as brokers between the worlds of ideas and political practice. In the United States think-tanks like the Brookings Institute, American Enterprise Institute and Hoover Institution have long provided bases for advisers moving between government and academe. Britain has lacked such institutes, culture and, apart from war, a system of ‘in and outers’ in Whitehall—although outstanding individual like Keynes or Beveridge (both in war-time moved between different careers and influenced the political agenda.


Yet since the mid-1970s a body like the Institute of Economic Affairs. the publishing house for promoting free market ideas, has gone from strength to strength, and been joined by many other think-tanks. One can point to the Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies ~CPS, Social Affairs Unit and various small specialist groups, sympathetic to the Conservative Party. Through pamphlets and seminars they have floated such ideas as privatisation, contracting out local government services, school vouchers, student loans and the winding up of Inner London Education Authority. They helped to change the climate of opinion and in turn profited from that change. Reforming ministers could use these ideas to challenge ‘yes minister’ officials in their departments. Members of Sirs Thatcher’s Policy Unit kept in touch with the think-tanks and helped her in her battles against allegedly status-quo inclined departments. These groups came into their own in the 1980s, largely because the Prime Minister and her allies sought support to overturn so man” Whitehall policies, or at least to challenge orthodoxies.


There is an impressive overlap between members of these think groups, Conservative MPs, special advisers to ministers and desk officers in the Conservative Research Department. Members of think-tanks get appointed to Conservative policy groups and consult with special advisers to ministers. Thus Lord Young of Graffham and Sir John Hoskyns started off in the Centre for Policy Studies in the late 19”Qs. the former then joining government as an adviser then minister, the latter heading the Policy Unit in No 10. John Redwood headed the Policy Unit before becoming a Conservative NIP. David Willetts is presently Director of Studies of the Centre for Policy Studies and prospective candidate for a safe Conservative seat, but between 1978 and 1984 he worked in the Treasury as an official, including spells as private secretary to Nigel Lawson and Nicholas Ridley, and he then worked in the No 10 Policy Unit. Robin Harris was at one time a special adviser in the Treasury for Nicholas Ridley, was for four years (1985—89) the Director of the Conservative Research Department and has recently joined the Policy Unit. Graham Slather, at present Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, was previously head of the Policy Unit at the Institute of Directors and has stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate. Of the last (1990) Thatcher Cabinet, Douglas Hurd, Christopher Patten, Anthony Newton, John MacGregor, Peter Lilley and Norman Lamont all took their first steps on the political ladder by working in the Conservative Research Department. Indeed, in the present House 27 Conservative MPs have been employed there and eight are former Central Office employees.


These positions provide a useful launching pad for a parliamentary career in the Conservative Party for young men and women. According to Byron Criddle, 68 of the 376 Conservative MPs returned in the 1987 Parliament have background of employment in the Research Depart­ment, or Central Office or as political advisers, sometimes in more than one capacity. This network also helps to keep issue specialists in touch with each other and, on balance, heightens interest in policy questions in the Conservative Party.


Labour has been much slower to develop such an infrastructure of institutions which provide bases for the entrepreneurs to move between employment in the party, government and think-tanks. But the recently established Institute of Public Policy Research, under James Cornford, a onetime academic and former Director of the Nuffield Foundation, and Pat Hewitt, senior Research Fellow and formerly press and broad­casting secretary to Neil Kinnock, is a modest attempt to emulate the Conservative practice. It seems, however, that, as in 1964 and 1966, a future Labour government will be heavily dependent on special advisers drawn from social science departments, notably economics and social administration/social policy, in the universities. At local government level, however, in a number of cities Labour councillors have combined elected office with employment as trade union officials or in neighbour­ing local authorities (until this was curtailed in 1988), or activity in voluntary groups or council-funded organisations.



In many respects the main theme, apart from the emergence of the political entrepreneurs, appears to be lack of change in the political class. That should not surprise: radical changes are more likely to accompany the collapse of or a fundamental shift in a regime and the replacement of one elite by another. Changes in the social backgrounds of politicians and top civil servants, though noticeable, are modest and broadly confirm the direction of earlier years.


There is also no discernible change in the narrow range of occupations from which politicians are recruited. The rule about starting earl in politics (entering Parliament in mid-30s)—and therefore probably not achieving a high level of competence in other fields—still holds. This means that politicians are overwhelmingly drawn from other posts in public affairs (eg in local government or as political advisers or researchers) or from professions which are relatively easy to combine with a political career or involve the use of relevant skills eg law and communications). The top levels of Whitehall and Westminster are as much a closed shop as ever. Virtually all Cabinet ministers continue to be drawn from elected MPs and all Permanent Secretaries are drawn from ‘lifers’ in the Whitehall establishment. In Downing Street Mrs. Thatcher may have chosen members of her Policy Unit and advisers for their technical and managerial skills (eg Sir John Hoskyns, Norman Strauss, Professor Brian Griffiths, Sir Alan Walters,, but in government only Lord Cockfield and Lord Young came from outside—in both cases from a business background. A possible force for change in the civil service is the Next Steps programme which may promote more inter­change between managers from the executive agencies and the policy makers in Whitehall.


It is worth noting how national leaders in other countries can recruit Cabinet ministers from outside the legislature, from law, business or academe. Countries with vigorous federal systems eg West Germany the United States and Australia) provide opportunities outside of central government for gaining executive experience, not least for the opposi­tion. In the United States and West Germany, reputations are first made at the state or regional levels. Moreover, both in France and Sweden more than half of the parliamentarians hold local political office as well.


This may be a hidden cost of the centralised system of government in Britain. A party in opposition for a lengthy period of time, as Labour was after 1951 and has been since 1979, is likely to lack potential ministers with experience of government. Opposition spokesmen will be catapulted into the Cabinet without the opportunity to ascend the ladder as a Parliamentary Private Secretary and junior minister. In federal systems or countries which have vigorous local government, opposition party leaders the opportunity of governing away from the centre. Reduction of the power of local government in recent years have further reduced this avenue in Britain.


The role requirements of political leadership. particularly in party management, remain much the same. Although Sirs Thatcher had strong views, and appointed and sacked many ministers, she rarely if ever had a Cabinet of Thatcherites. For the most part she took account of the talent available and the political balance of the party. It is interesting that the stars on Labour’s frontbench—John Smith. Gordon Brown, Jack Cunningham, Brian Gould, Roy Hattersley and Robin Cooke—score in parliamentary debates. Such a skill remains the key to winning the plaudits of parliamentary’ colleagues and political commen­tators. It is a mark of the importance which political leadership in Britain attaches to such qualities, and a reflection of the narrow socialisation of ministers: on average, present Cabinet ministers have spent 12 years in Commons before gaining office. Such a background cultivates and rewards communicating and debating skills.


It is likely that the presentational aspects of politics at the top have increased, particularly in the past decade. Edward Heath, Michael Foot and James Callaghan made few concessions to their media and public relations advisers. It would be difficult to imagine an~’ of them nestling a calf in a field in Norfolk for 13 minutes for the benefit of photo­graphers, as Mrs. Thatcher did in the 1979 general election. This is not a matter of different party values, for Neil Kinnock has been as willing as Mrs. Thatcher to adapt himself to the requirements of the media— making time for photo-opportunities and sound-bites, Voters’ impres­sions about politics are increasingly gained from television: being ‘good’ on the box is a great asset19.


Mrs. Thatcher’s friends—’the Thatcherites’—have been heavily drawn from the world of the media and presentation. Certain Prime Ministers, like US Presidents, acquire, when in office, a circle of courtiers, advisers, speech writers, friends and cronies. These are people, holding no formal party position, who have regular access to the leader. Lloyd George had his ‘garden suburb’ of advisers; Winston Churchill had an entourage of Professor Lindemann (Viscount Cherwell), Brendan Bracken, John Colville, and Lord Beaverbrook. Mrs. Thatcher has been sustained both in work and relaxation by people like Sir Gordan Reece, Sir Ronald Millar, Jeffrey Archer, Lord Wyatt, Sir Alastair MacAlpine and Sir Tim Bell. One assumes that with her departure from office their access to No 10 Downing Street will also be drastically reduced.


There has been some emphasis on a macho or can-do style of management in much of the public sector, in industry, and in political life. Mrs. Thatcher prided herself on providing strong leadership, being effective in a crisis, and the electorate credited her with these qualities. There was pressure on Mr Kinnock to emulate her and his standing with colleagues and the public has soared when he has hammered the left of his party. Some of this may be a reaction to the 1960s and 1970s when it was widely thought that British leaders were too respectful of established restrictive practices in industry’ and the professions and too accommodating to group demands. Leaders, it was said, were ‘overloaded’ by group demands and the political system suffered a pluralistic stagnation’. Both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath started as mobilisers, promising major changes, and ended as conciliators; indeed, as Prime Minister in 1974 Harold Wilson promised the electorate ‘a bit of peace and quiet’. What seemed to count in the 1970s was the government’s ability to strike agreements with the social partners.


Mrs Thatcher rejected this outlook. Under her there was a greater sense of the autonomy of the centre, which was reflected in the government’s unwillingness to court groups and its withdrawal from established responsibilities, eg full employment. She also displayed a great confidence in her sense of what needed to be done and was more interested in seeking advice about implementation. She did not appoint any Royal Commissions. A Cabinet colleague commented: ‘She likes to start a discussion with the conclusion’.


It has often been noted that Mrs. Thatcher was dismissive of the largely centrist establishment—senior civil service, universities, lawyers, bankers, church leaders and the BBC. These institutions provided many members—the ‘good and the great’—of the Royal Commissions and are ‘The Lost Tribe of British Public Life’20. John Lloyd, of the Financial Times, has talked about the emergence of a new and different anti-­establishment. Whereas the old one was assured, middle-class, paternal­1st and not very materialistic—in a word, satisfied; the new one consists predominant1 of rule or code-breakers, materialists, and people who are demotic and efficient. It includes people like Alan Sugar, Lord Hansen, James Goldsmith, Lord Raynor, Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Neil.


Mrs. Thatcher, like many of these, was sceptical of consensus-seeking Royal Commissions and the time-honoured rules of the professions, and saw herself as outside the old Establishment. In a notable speech in 1985 she attacked her clerical and academic critics, praising the risk-takers and wealth-creators, people who are frequently from a modest background. ‘And nowhere is this attitude (opposition to wealth-creation) more marked than in the cloister and common room. What these critics apparently can’t stomach is that wealth-creators have a tendency to acquire wealth in the process of creating it for others.’ She continued: ‘They didn’t speak with Oxford accents. They hadn’t got what people call the right “connections”, they had just one thing in common they were men of action.’ Here perhaps is the most noticeable change: the great casualty of the past two decades has been the ‘trimmer’ style of politics, and with it the consensus seeking fixers.




1 W. L. Guttstmsn. The British Political Elite Hetnemann, l963)

2 M. Butch and M. Moran, ‘The Changing British Political Elite Parliamenta,-v Affairs. Vol 38. 1985.

3 A. King. ‘The Rise of the Career Politician in Britain—and itS Consequences. British journal of Political Science. Vol 11, 1981.

4. D. Kogan and M. Kogan, The Battle for the Labour Parts Fontana. 1982
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6. 0. Kavanagh. Thatcherism and British Politics Oxford University Press. 2 ed. 1990

7 I. Crewe ‘Values: The Crusade that Failed’ in D. Kavanagh and A. Seldon (eds) The Thatcher Effect Oxtord Universitv Press. 1989
8. Crewe. op cit                                 ~
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10.  P. Hennessy, Cabinet .Blackwells. 1986 and A. Betri!, ‘Strength at the Centre. The Case for a Prime Ministers Department’ in A. King ed. The British Prime Minister Macmillan. 1985.

11.  P. Dunleavy. G. Jones and B. O’Leary, ‘Paine Ministers in the Commons: Patterns of Behaviour’ Public Administration Vol 68. 1990.

12.  Rosa Institute of Public Administration, Top jobs in Whitehall, (London, 198

13.  K. Theakston and G. Ft’s. ‘Britain’s Administrative Elite: Permanent Secretaries 1900—86’, Public AdmInistration, Vol ,6, 1988.

14.  C. Hood. Beyond the Public Bureaucracy State’, London School of Economics. 1990.

15.  P. Jackson, ‘Measuring the Efficiencies of the Public Sector .Mianchester Statistical Society’s-, 1988.

16.  P. Hennessv, Whitehall Cape. 1989: P 529.

17. J. Hosksins, ‘Whitehall and Westminster: An Outsider’s View’, Parliamentary .Affairs Vol 36, 1983 and Hoskvns, ‘Conservatism is not enough’. Political Quarterlts, Vol 55. 1984.

18. 0. Butler and 0. Kavanagh. The British General Election of I 967.

19. M. Cocketill. Lie from No 10 Cape, 1988