This is an unusual book. It is a lucid attack on white, middle-class men in politics, Whitehall and the media written by two white, middle-class men working in the media, one of whom previously worked in Whitehall. It slams the University of Oxford’s PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) course for teaching people to “blag” about topics of which they know little. Yet the authors are two young PPE graduates with limited experience.
A third of the book is devoted to a detailed account of how to survive PPE at Oxford. This is unilluminating because the uniqueness of the course is exaggerated. For example, the authors claim that PPE owns the concept of an “essay crisis”, which is described as “an obscure barb relating to one university degree” rather than the more general suffering that it is. At times, I was left wondering if they have ever met anyone with another degree from a different university.
The scattergun criticisms are also over the top. For instance, the book says that Westminster lobby journalists exist to enable government ministers to avoid speaking to specialist media. This is full-on nonsense. The lobby is there to report parliamentary affairs, and you only have to open a newspaper to see how often ministers interact with specialist journalists.
The proposed policy ideas for solving the supposed problems in how we are governed are minnows. Getting journalists to explain their incorrect predictions, having a little more scrutiny of officials by select committees and encouraging recruitment from the whole Russell Group, not just Oxbridge, are tiny changes if the problems identified in this book are anywhere near the whole truth.
Neither the lack of evidence nor the specific policy conclusions are the biggest flaw, however. It is the overarching narrative, which assumes all would be well if only we were to put the “experts” in charge. That sounds lovely, but it leaves three questions hanging. Ironically, given the book’s obsession with PPE, one is philosophical, one political and one economic.
First, to which experts should we listen? In higher education, are the experts the students, the staff or the arm’s-length bodies with long institutional memories? It can’t be all of them because they often disagree and dialogue becomes bogged down. Indeed, non-experts are critical to good governance because they cure blockages.
Second, what does expertise mean? The authors assume that politicians, civil servants and journalists cannot be experts because they move from role to role and topic to topic. But this process makes them expert in, respectively, political matters, keeping the show on the road and conveying news. Those are vocational specialisms. It may be unfashionable to say so, but the UK’s post-war economic success relied more on the skills and expertise of those in Whitehall and Westminster than luck or “blagging”. So will delivering success after Brexit.
Finally, how can we give experts all the power when their main demand is generally “more money”? That is not an answer because, once you have given the education and health experts their extra resources, you will not have enough left for those in defence and housing. Someone has to intervene. It is regrettable that the PPE graduates who wrote this book have forgotten that economics is, above all, the study of scarcity.
Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and previously worked as special adviser in Whitehall.
By James Ball and Andrew Greenway
Biteback, 128pp, £10.00
Published 16 August 2018