David Willetts in Conversation with Tony Wright

David Willetts in Conversation with Tony Wright

By Professor Eric Kaufmann

Former Labour MP and Birkbeck Politics Professorial Fellow Tony Wright hosted a memorable evening with former Tory MP David Willetts on 11 February in the cozy confines of the Keynes Library. Willetts, known as ‘two brains’ for his intellectualism and (current) tally of ten authored books, served as Universities Minister in the Cameron government until 2015. He also served under Margaret Thatcher at her Policy Unit. Among his more influential works is his recent book on problems of intergenerational equity entitled The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.

There were few empty chairs as Wright and the audience questioned Willetts about the ideas that have animated his career: the meaning of Conservatism, the role of government, and policy issues from housing and apprenticeships to industrial policy and the living wage.

Wright set the tone by revisiting one of Willetts’ first books, Modern Conservatism, penned in 1992. A classic statement of 1980s Thatcherism, it extolled the virtues of the unfettered market and suggested the state had little role to play in a modern society. Pressed on this by Wright, Willetts admitted the book was a creature of its time, and that he had subsequently altered his views on inequality. Willetts related that his political consciousness was forged in the battles against the trade unions and nationalisation in the 1970s when governments felt they should be in the business of running everything including travel agencies and airlines while restricting individuals’ right to purchase foreign currency. We now accept a more liberalised world, but are confronted by new challenges, including excess and inequality. In the 1990s, he therefore took the neoclassical economists’ view that so long as the lot of the poor improved in absolute terms, relative inequality between top and bottom was a non-issue.

Since then, remarked Willetts, the work of Michael Marmot, and of evolutionary psychology, had brought home to him the damaging psychological effects of positional inequality, hence he agreed this needed to be curbed. Willetts, however, spoke for a Burkean, community-oriented check on the market rather than statism. Accordingly, he argued for a focus on inter-generational equity rather than radical redistribution. This meant improving access to higher education, housing and pensions for young people while removing the barriers to housing construction erected by NIMBYist Baby Boomers. Willetts was encouraged by the growing shift in public opinion in favour of housebuilding as well as governments’ increasing willingness to use the machinery of state to release land and build homes. He accepted the need for governments to tax the wealthy, and corporations, but stopped short of endorsing a hike in inheritance tax, suggesting that peoples’ desire to provide for the children’s future was a laudable aim. For him, the welfare state was important, but more as a collective insurance policy for the poor and infirm in which rights are balanced by obligations – a pool into which all who can are expected to contribute.

Questioned about the challenge of diversity to a solidaristic model of society, Willetts replied that his book, The Pinch, envisions a fragmented society renewing its obligations to future generations, thereby providing a common bond which an unite Britons across faultlines of ethnicity and religion. He also greatly championed university education, suggesting that apprenticeships were often tied to seasonal or sunset industries and hence the government would be hard-pressed to meet its 3 million target. He claimed that the view that universities taught impractical skills, or were a luxury good, were wrongheaded. A great deal of vocational training takes place at universities, so children should be encouraged to attend: he wanted to see an increasing share go to university. He added that his government’s tuition fee hike was progressive  in this regard since there were no upfront fees and those who failed to earn above the threshold were not obligated to repay their loans.

Reflecting on how decisions are made in government, Willetts said that evidence, especially academic evidence, doesn’t easily filter down to decision makers. For instance, Willetts related that when he asked for 30 minutes of George Osborne’s time, he was told that he could catch him on the way to the lift. Willetts had to talk at Osborne as he went in, and received a response he used to make policy as the doors were closing.

For Willetts, the expenses scandal, while offering greater transparency, has led to a situation where allowable expenses have become so restricted that only the wealthy or those without normal family lives can afford not to take expenses. Serving coffee to constituents at a constituency surgery, for example, adds up, yet cannot be charged.

The enjoyable evening thus ended on a rare note of agreement between Wright and Willetts: that most politicians enter politics to serve and should be accorded more credit for this by the media and the public.

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