The artful enforcer who shoots from the hip

September 17, 2004

He won't suffer 'arty bullshit', rap music or the Wurzels... Alan Thomson sheds light on the background of the new Higher Education Minister.

The Government's decision to replace a minister skilled in persuasion with one who might be described as skilled in aggravation will have come as a surprise to many in higher education.

Kim Howells, who replaces Alan Johnson as Higher Education Minister, has a long and colourful record of sticking the verbal boot in, even if it does sometimes land in his own mouth.

The more celebrated cases include his attack on Brit Art, which he described as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit" in 2002. Although Dr Howells is perhaps more qualified than most people to criticise, having gone to art school, the trouble was that he was Minister for Culture when he said it.

He then accused films, television programmes and computer games of peddling a "pornography of violence" before capping this with a clumsy public attack that sought to pin the blame for much of youth crime, including gun crime, on rap music.

Quite what the young and more radical Kim Howells would have made of such views is open to debate. He was one of the leaders of the student occupation of Hornsey College of Art, where he was a student, in 1968. The young revolutionary gave up painting because it was a manifestation of "bourgeois individualism".

He left without a degree and then, in quick succession, went on to short stints as a steelworker, a rugby league player and a miner.

In 1975, he started a degree in economics, history and English at the Cambridge College of Advanced Technology (now Anglia Polytechnic University) and then went on to do a PhD on the history of the coal industry at Warwick University. He was a lecturer and then a researcher at Swansea University until 1982, at which point he went to work for the National Union of Mineworkers.

Disaffected by the tactics of the NUM leadership during the miners' strike, Dr Howells moved closer to the modernisers in the Labour Party, led by fellow Welshman Neil Kinnock.

It was during the 1980s that he would have met Charles Clarke, now his boss at the Department for Education and Skills, who was at the time running Mr Kinnock's office. Dr Howells became MP for Pontypridd in 1989.

Dr Howells made the natural progression to supporting Tony Blair as leader after 1994 and, following New Labour's landslide election victory in May 1997, he was rewarded with the post of Junior Minister for Lifelong Learning under David Blunkett.

A year later he moved to the Department of Trade and Industry and then to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport before being shifted to the Department for Transport.

Dr Howells is a versatile if volatile man, and his appointment to the DFES has raised eyebrows, given the sensitivities over top-up fees and other changes planned for higher education. Many expected another conciliator in the mould of Mr Johnson.

But the answer to the conundrum may be, as some of Dr Howell's colleagues have already suggested, that Dr Howells has been brought in as an enforcer.

They suggest that, having got the fees legislation through Parliament, the Government now expects universities to keep their side of the bargain by, for example, admitting more people from poor backgrounds.

And there is no doubt that, by appointing Dr Howells, the Government has someone they can trust to take up the cudgels if needs be and who, above all, will not mince his words.

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

Famous Howellers

  • On rap music: 'Hateful lyrics of those boasting, macho, idiot rappers'
  • On the Welsh 'Taffia': 'Probably the most effective back-scratching organisation outside Sicily'
  • On Brit Art: 'Cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit'
  • On the Royal family: 'All a bit bonkers'
  • On policy towards cars: 'To try to tax people out of their cars in the same way the authorities have tried to tax people off cigarettes'
  • On the railway system: 'Mad', 'crazy', 'insane'
  • On British film-makers:'A very small, miserable bunch of chattering classes'
  • On the Wurzels: 'The idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell'
  • On his unpublished novel: 'Very racy and lots of sex'
  • On being outspoken: 'You can't keep tiptoeing around issues'

Alan Johnson: working-class hero who turned pilot for the bill

When Alan Johnson was named Higher Education Minister, The Times Higher wrote that toughness and the ability to get the job done would be telling.

Mr Johnson proved to be an inspired choice and, just 14 months on, he now has his own department - for Work and Pensions - as reward for his efforts in piloting the controversial Higher Education Bill through Parliament.

The former union boss, who had no working experience of higher education, did his homework, wisely using most of the summer after his June appointment to meet people in the sector.

His ability to listen and quickly grasp the arguments impressed, while his working-class roots and trade union credentials made him a hard target for Labour rebels.

Mr Johnson's finest hour came when he summed up the debate before the House of Commons vote on the Bill in January. Commentators say his composed and humorous speech was worth at least one or two of the five votes with which the Government scraped home.

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