Dodging Telegraph readers between jobs

November 19, 1999

Departing CBI boss Adair Turner, right, talks to Kam Patel about primary schoolinitiatives, mad Eurosceptics and his day job at the LSE

Sitting in his London office Adair Turner hunches his shoulders, stuffs his hands in his pockets and chuckles. Thirty days to go, he says, grinning, before, as outgoing boss of the Confederation of British Industry, he forever escapes media questioning about the euro, an issue that has seen his office embroiled in a war with militant eurosceptics.

After five years at the helm of the employers organisation, he is demob happy. Yet Turner, whose successor, Digby Jones, a senior partner at KPMG, was announced this week, is unlikely to escape searching but rather more civil queries on the euro from students and staff at the London School of Economics. He plans to spend more time at the LSE, where he is a visiting professor, partly to write a book next year on "globalisation, technology and economic policy".

Although 44-year-old Turner, a history and economics graduate of Cambridge, sympathises with universities' seemingly never ending funding problems, he is clear where government should be spending any extra in its education budget - and it's not necessarily on higher education. He says: "I am absolutely convinced that the core for equipping people with skills that allow them in future life to learn whatever they want to learn is what happens in primary schools. We have adults who are stunningly illiterate and innumerate and we seem to have more than in other countries. That has to be fixed."

Another task is to create a prestigious technical vocational qualification as an alternative to degrees. But this is not to deny the needs of universities: "It is important that our best universities, which produce the kind of things that are massively important to business and industry, are not damaged. At the same time, I want to live in a society where somebody solves Fermat's Last Theorem - it's of no bloody use to anybody, but I just want to live in that sort of society." But he still feels that on the primary and technical vocational front the UK has performed poorly:

"I would put those at the fore for action rather than simply encouraging further expansion of higher education. Not because it is not important, but because we have seen a large expansion of the sector over the last decade and I just think it is now time to stabilise it."

One contentious issue that has emerged recently is the notion of differential salaries to prevent the flight of top academics to the US, where they can earn more. A recent report by academic economists warned of a big decline in home-grown, high-flying students staying on in universities to do research. Instead they opt to work in the City where salaries are far higher. Turner's view is that it should be possible to pay more to keep the very best academics, but urges caution: "Careers, institutions and professions are not kept going by free-market economics entirelyI what I call market fundamentalism is dangerous.You have to allow that people go into jobs for all sorts of reasons and universities are held together by like-minded people who need to have a collegiate atmosphere to do their best.

"You cannot set a remuneration system for teachers and lecturers on the same basis by which you remunerate a computer sales force simply because there will not be the same measures of success. And if you do you will undermine morale. But a balance has to be struck and that could include an element of differential salary."

Turner's warnings against "market fundamentalism" are echoed in his analysis of the pros and cons of Britain joining the euro. Some Eurosceptics believe the CBI has sold out on the euro. He disagrees: "I am nothing like as gung-ho in favour as some press suggest. There is a lot of deliberate misrepresentation."

To appreciate the level of abuse meted out one only needs to read the letters pages of some of the broadsheets - particularly The Daily Telegraph's: "Some of it is barking mad," says Turner. "I also receive letters in green ink from people who accuse me of having caused more damage to British industry than the Luftwaffe did and who suggest the CBI should be renamed the Confederation of German Industry!

"What I see in militant Eurosceptics in meetings is a mad glint in the eye I I recognised it as a Conservative in the early 1970s - you saw it at university, you saw it with the International Marxists group and the whole of the hard-core left. There is that same passionate love of a point of view that overcomes all sense of intellectual integrity, all sense of fairness and all sense of balance."

Turner's own position is that the euro is likely to be a success. "The government's stance, which is broadly about keeping our options open, is very much my own."

Turner wants to make it "absolutely clear" that he does not believe Britain outside the euro will become poor. "I think we would continue to grow. The difference is whether we would, say, double the national income in 35 years rather than 25."

How does he think new Labour is faring more generally?

In Turner's view British politics has changed irrevocably over the past 20 years. He says the difference between new Labour and the Conservatives is like the difference between the Tory reform group and the right-wing of the Tory party in the 1970s. "But it is not equivalent to the difference that existed between the Tories and Labour during the 1970s I basically one side won."

What he finds "so amazing" is that people deny this fundamental change. "A lot of people cannot accept that there is a huge consensus on the main issues now and therefore politics is about technocratic details. That is what has changed and I am completely unrepentant in saying so."

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