Good God, I thought as the news broke yesterday morning, is there nothing the man can’t do? George Osborne, one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer and architect of the austerity programme little loved by the nation’s cultural institutions, has added to his portfolio of part-time jobs by becoming the Chairman of the British Museum.
What is it, you might wonder, that makes Mr Osborne the best qualified person to do this job? Does he spend his idle hours thinking about the best way to facilitate the curation of valuable collections and the ethics of repatriating plundered antiquities? Is he a scholar of archaeology and an expert on the way museums are run around the world? Does he have outstanding contacts in the arts world? Or is he, rather, The Right Sort Of Chap?
This appointment reminds us that the economy in this country is essentially divided in two. There’s a very big bit of it, involving most people, where you are expected to develop skills in a particular job. You train as a doctor or a lawyer, or you apprentice as a stacker of shelves or a maker of widgets. If things go well, you steadily ascend the ladder of your chosen career, becoming more senior and better paid. If things go badly — say, they invent a robot that can do the same job more cheaply, or people cease to want coal dug out of the ground — you are stuffed. You have to “retrain”, to move into another sector.
Then there’s this small other part of the economy — which is, incidentally, the part in charge — where you need no specific skills at all. It is about being, like George, The Right Sort Of Chap. You have ascended to a level of seniority by sucking up to the right people and getting in the right gang — and once you’ve made it, you’ve made it. Being The Right Sort Of Chap trumps any domain-specific knowledge or experience. You will swan into one board-level job or consulting gig after another. What they want is your contacts in the corridors of power and your name on the letterhead.
The Right Sort of Chap is a part of the nepotistic, private-school-dominated establishment, in which your path is eased by knowing the right people and projecting the right front (as a public-school educated brat myself I check my privilege in that department); but they’re what you might think of as the god-tier version. Public school chutzpah can help get you to the top of a profession; Right Sort Of Chapness, once you’ve got there, renders your specific profession irrelevant. You can run companies, newspapers, universities, cultural institutions or countries with equal confidence.
Sometimes people make it to this stage by toiling up through the first section of the economy and reaching escape velocity: they are at board level in their chosen industry and find themselves, in the silver back end of their career, accumulating seats in the Lords, directorships and chairs here there and everywhere. There’s the assumption, perhaps not always wrong, that corporate governance is a transferable skill. And there’s the agreeable sense that if you sit on each other’s remuneration committees everyone can be accommodated in a civilised way.
But some, like our George, get there with no very concrete sign of prior achievement at all. Having struggled to get anywhere in journalism (turned down for this trainee scheme; turned down for that job; reduced to freelance shifts on the Telegraph diary — and some of us know what that’s like) he plunged into Conservative Central Office as a young thing and ended up scooting up the political ladder with the Notting Hill Tory chumocracy. Right place, right time, right pals. He was now The Right Sort Of Chap.
He had a golden few years in Cabinet and then, having bished up the Brexit campaign and seen his main patron throw in the towel, he started rampaging through the private sector, where former Chancellors of the Exchequer command a premium. Adviser to a handful of venture capital outfits; chair of a think-tank; honorary professor here; visiting fellow there. Why wouldn’t he end up editing the Evening Standard or chairing the BM as a sideline?
Propriety requires me to make a declaration of interest here: George fired me as a columnist from the Evening Standard. I don’t spend a lot of time plotting his downfall, but I can’t pretend I wouldn’t smirk if I read that he’d fallen down an open manhole. Still, the evidence that he was a poor editor of that paper is abundant even if, in firing me, he showed he was capable of making the odd sensible decision.
Having never been a proper journalist, he didn’t seem to get the idea that you’re not supposed to compromise editorial independence to suck up to friends, political allies and other employers of the editor. The coverage of Uber and Google and various other concerns was, we can say, suboptimal. But the Standard’s editorship, for George, was not so much a job as an influence-peddling sideline in any case; the main gig was a £650,000, three-day a week consultancy for the fund manager BlackRock, along with a by then uncountable number of other jobs whose highish salaries and lowish actual-work requirements were the main thing they had in common. And in this, he was not an outlier but a representative.
The Right Sort Of Chap principle runs through British public life like the lettering through a stick of Brighton rock. It starts early: once you’ve finagled your way into one of the great universities, you can often make a quick change of course. I remember watching contemporaries do so with something like awe. You got into Oxford to do, say, Theology against less than stiff competition — but now you’ve decided you’d prefer to study PPE, so you switch. Tough luck on the suckers who applied to that vastly oversubscribed course in the first place and didn’t get in.
At the end of it you get a milk-round job in a big five consultancy where — nice suit, middling degree from a good university — you’re sent out to advise professional businesspeople on how to run businesses. Consultancy, as a burgeoning profession in public and business life, more or less enshrines the principle that Right-Sort-Of-Chapness trumps actual knowledge or experience. By then, you’re on your way — set up for a sideways jump into politics.
After all, the principle continues at the most senior levels of governance — and is, on the face of it, an extremely odd one. Once you’re in the cabinet (and don’t let’s get started on the track records that gave us the likes of Gavin Williamson, Matt Hancock and Priti Patel in their current seniority), you can be reshuffled to any portfolio at all. The quite absurd assumption is that the skills that outfit you to get in with the right gang in politics will outfit you to take any role in government. There will be first-year undergraduates who have a better grasp of economics than you — but the PM owes you one and you didn’t shit the bed as minister for fun, so boom: you’re Chancellor of the Exchequer.
These moves are not made on the basis of the candidate’s suitability for a given role but for reasons of Prime Ministerial patronage (it was a happy accident that when he became Chancellor, Gordon Brown was the sort of fellow who read books about post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory). And it’s for the same reasons that, rather than keep cabinet ministers in one department for many years so they actually learn something, they’re often as not bounced into a new one after a couple of years. That’s why we get Welsh Secretaries who don’t know the Welsh national anthem, trade ministers who haven’t grasped the importance of the Dover to Calais route and Northern Ireland ministers who haven’t quite got round to reading the Good Friday Agreement.
This government has been even keener than most on the Right Sort Of Chap principle, even extending it to the awarding of public contracts during the pandemic. Companies with no experience of making PPE, or in some cases no experience of making anything at all, were awarded multi-million pound contracts to have a bash at it on the apparent basis that they drank in the same pub as a cabinet minister, or were mates with Dominic Cummings, or had the PM’s mobile number. And failure — as everyone from Serco or G4S to Matt (“totally fucking hopeless”) Hancock knows — is no obstacle to continuing in post.
Dido Harding is perhaps the outstanding example of the Right Sort Of Chap. She, too, made the right friends at university. She did her apprenticeship in consultancy, and there followed a merry-go-round of board-level appointments at which she was, mostly, heroically useless (notoriously presiding over the TalkTalk data loss fiasco). She failed upwards to become a Tory peer and, again with no domain-specific experience, was put in charge of Test and Trace — which had the distinction of being one of the most spectacular failures in the long catalogue of governmental failures during the pandemic. Not, apparently, troubled by self-reflection, she’s now campaigning to be put in charge of the whole NHS. She’ll probably get the job. And if she doesn’t, perhaps George will see her right with a senior role at the British Museum.
After all, he is part of an establishment that operates on the blithe assumption that all skills are transferable, that an aptitude for political schmoozing magically confers any number of lesser competences on its owner — and that the Right Sort of Chap is the right person for the job, even if they’ve proved otherwise, time and again.