Nieuwe Britse HO-minister ’two brains’

Nieuws | de redactie
14 mei 2010 | David Willetts is de nieuwe Britse ‘minister of state for universities and science’. De Tory-politicus dient onder de Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, de liberaal Vince Cable, een oud-topman van Shell. Willets is in het House of Commons befaamd om zijn IQ, met als bijnaam ‘two brains’. Dat intellect zal nodig zijn, want op wetenschap gaat bezuinigd worden.

Het nieuwe kabinet-Cameron heeft doorgezet, dat nu meteen zo´n 6miljard pond gesneden gaat worden in de lopende uitgaven, om hetgrote tekort in te perken. Daarbij zijn maar weinig heilige koeien,zodat niet alleen de uit de hand lopende kosten bij de Olympiade2012 in Londen, maar ook het wetenschapsbeleid er aan zal moetengeloven.

Cameron zet Tories op ‘kennis’ 

Die Olympische ingrepen moet de nieuwe minister voor Cultuur enSport, de Tory Jeremy Hunt, zien door te drukken. Hijheeft een aparte band met het hoger onderwijs: ‘Hefounded a company called Hotcourses, offering guides to helpstudents find the right course before entering University’, meldtde BBC.

Minister van Onderwijs -dus van PO tot en met MBO- wordt ook eenTory. Michael Gove geldt als een van David Cameronsvertrouwelingen. ‘The former Times journalist is a key member ofDavid Cameron’s inner circle who helps write many of hisspeeches.’

Thinking person’s Kamerlid

De nieuwe HO en R&D-minister David Willets is een typische’public intellectual’, die in het maatschappelijke en intellectuelediscours van vele markten thuis is. Recentschreef hij een scherpzinnig boek over hoe debabyboom-generatie de kansen op welvaart voor haar kinderen verpestheeft door haar hedonisme en weigering de toekomst van haarkinderen serieus te nemen. Richard Reeves van de linksethinktank Demos prees Willets voor de vele origineleinzichten en analyes in zijn boek en schreef dat hij ´has confirmedhis status as the thinking person’s MP.´

Een van die analyses beschrijft Reeves zo. ´Educational upgrading -the increase in the numbers of young ­people getting qualifications- accounts for 40 per cent of the fall in mobility for womenbetween 1958 and 1970. This is, as Willetts says, a shockingstatistic. The expansion of higher education, far from improvingsocial mobility, has actually made it worse.

Women graduates marry male graduates and this trend towards”assortative mating” has increased in recent years, which meansthat on a household level, inequality is bound to rise. Thenarrowing of the gender gap seems to have widened the class gap.´ U leest Reeves´ betoog uit ´The Observer´ van 7 februari j.l.hieronder.

The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole TheirChildren’s Future by David Willetts

David Willetts is a rare creature. Britain does not produce manypublic intellectuals. To find one lurking deep in the jungle ofWestminster politics is little short of an anthropological miracle.But with this book, Willetts, a frontline Conservative politician,has confirmed his status as the thinking person’s MP.

The Pinch sets out to show how the baby boomers – those,like Willetts, who were born between 1945 and 1965 – have “stolentheir children’s future” through their cultural, demographic andpolitical dominance. Willetts does not quite succeed in provingthis charge of intergenerational theft. But in marshalling his casehe takes you on such a fascinating journey through British societythat you do not feel remotely shortchanged.

His stated thesis is that the big generation of boomers hasconcentrated wealth, adopted a hegemonic position over nationalculture and failed to attend to the needs of the future. They have,in effect, broken the inter-generational ­contract. It is certainlytrue that the boomers have done well out of the welfare state,being set to take out, Willetts suggests, approximately 118% ofwhat they’ll put in. But this makes them no worse than ­previousgenerations, including those born between 1900 and 1920.

There is also no doubt that the monomaniacal British obsession withhome ownership, while far from being a new phenomenon, has so farbenefited the boomers rather more than the generations on eitherside. At the same time, the rise in immigration since the mid-1990shas held down wages for Generations X and Y (or those born betweenthe mid-60s and the millennium) who would otherwise be benefitingfrom being in a smaller cohort and therefore a tighter labourmarket. It is also true that the boomers haven’t been proactiveenough on climate change – indeed, Willetts says too little aboutthis – but it is hard to argue that they can be singled out onthese grounds.

Willetts is unsure whether the ­boomers are a bad generation orjust a big and lucky one. At one point, he insists that”generational name-calling” is unhelpful and that the issue at handis simply a demographic one. But at other points, he labels theboomer generation a “selfish giant”, which sounds like­name-calling to me. The main problem facing him is the absence ofhard data. There is good academic research in the US on”inter-generational accounting”, but no equivalent here.

Willetts is candid about the fact that “there are no authoritativeestimates of the distribution of the £6.7 trillion of wealth in ourcountry between the ­different age groups” and relies instead onthe assertion that “there are good ­reasons to believe” the boomershave got more than their fair share. There are some reasons tobelieve this, but it is also likely that the recent financial crashwill alter any generational distribution of money, since theboomers are retiring just as the value of their pension assets hasbeen sharply knocked down.

Willetts might have done better to take as his main theme the linksbetween family, education and social mobility, since on theseissues he is on firmer ground. In fact, his title could just aseasily have been The Big Grab: How the Rich Are Using Money andMarriage to Buy the Future for Their Kids. His ­opening ­chapter isa tour de force, a brief, brilliant history of England’s socialarchitecture. He shows that far from being a modern invention, thenuclear family is a long-standing feature of Anglophone societies.(We are, he says, “the first nuclear power”.) The idea that we usedto live in big, warm, noisy My Big Fat Greek Wedding-typefamilies is a myth. “Think of England as being like this for atleast 750 years,” he writes. “We live in small families. We buy andsell houses. We go out to work for a wage.”

The English have a private, market-based idea of property, incontrast to the familial property forms of our continentalneighbours. Over a 44-year period in Leighton Buzzard, more than900 houses changed hands. Two-thirds were sold to someone outsidethe family, rather than being passed down. The years in question?1464 to 1508.

By contrast, the large familial networks of continental Europe actas the institutional anchor for property ownership andtransmission, as well as for the formation of businesses and theprovision of welfare. Willetts speculates that theproperty-managing function of French families may explain whyromantic love there is more often associated with extramaritalrelationships. The orientation towards family-owned firms inGermany helps to explain the strength of the Mittelstand,the medium-sized, locally rooted layers of corporations.

Willetts does not at any point fall victim to the awfulif-only-we-were-more-like-the-continentals lament. He does not wantto alter our social DNA. But our particular social economy has twoimportant consequences. First, the smallness of our families puts agreater emphasis on non-familial civic institutions. Small familiesneed civil society more. This is why medieval guilds, trade unionsand churches have played such an important role in ourhistory.

Second, the welfare role of government is greater in a societymarked by a highly privatised notion of property and smallfamilies. Breadwinning men are less likely to have family resourcesto fall back on, so need out-of-work benefits. This system workedreasonably well until the rise in divorce rates in 1970s and1980s.

Then, millions of women, many with dependent children, suddenlybecame reliant on the state. As Willetts puts it: “A welfare systemthat was ­originally designed to compensate men for loss ofearnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women forthe loss of men.” And everybody – but ­especially women – ends uppoorer. This is why Willetts, certainly no reactionary, is sopro-marriage.

Strong parental relationships also influence children’s well-being,which in turn affects the chances of upward social mobility,another of Willetts’s preoccupations. Drawing on the very latestand best research, Willetts shows how the middle classes aretightening their grip on the opportunities available for the nextgeneration. The professions are all but sealed off from the poor:”The competition for jobs is like English tennis, a competitivegame but largely one the middle classes play against eachother.”

In general, this is a remarkably non-political book; David Cameronis mentioned just once. But ­Willetts does argue strongly for avouchers scheme in ­education, weighted in favour of the poor, inorder to break the middle-class stranglehold on the state education­system. And the explanation for the flat-lining of social mobilitybrings Willetts back to social structures and, in particular, thetrade-off between gender equality and class equality.

The principal beneficiaries of the expansion of higher educationhave been the daughters of the middle class. Six per cent of girlsborn into low-income families in both 1958 and 1970 went touniversity; for girls born into richer households, the rate rosefrom 21 per cent to 36 per cent.

“Educational upgrading” – the increase in the numbers of young­people getting qualifications – accounts for 40 per cent of thefall in mobility for women between 1958 and 1970. This is, asWilletts says, a shocking statistic. The expansion of highereducation, far from improving social mobility, has actually made itworse. Women graduates marry male graduates and this trend towards”assortative mating” has increased in recent years, which meansthat on a household level, inequality is bound to rise. Thenarrowing of the gender gap seems to have widened the classgap.

As Willetts puts it: “Feminism has trumped egalitarianism.” And notjust for one generation, either: just 5% of degree-­educatedmothers split up from their partner before their child’s thirdbirthday, compared with 42% of mums with no qualifications.

Willetts manages to synthesise these social trends into a coherentand engaging narrative, successfully mixing vignettes fromSouth Park and The Simpsons withstatistics from the British Household Panel Survey. Most important,when it comes to social and economic research, Willetts really doesknow his stuff.

David Cameron has lately been engaging fruitfully with externalpolitical thinktanks (including, I should say, Demos). This isgreatly to his credit. Let’s hope he recognises that in DavidWilletts he has a one-man thinktank right under his nose.

Richard Reeves is the director of Demos

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