This week has provided two startling insights into potential futures for British politics. Both are a tad dystopian. On the right, we have the attendees of the ‘Reasoned’ student conference. My talented chum Will Lloyd, in his UnHerd write-up, portrayed them as an eclectic selection of tweed, Sophie Corcoran, and crypto enthusiasts with a worrying tendency to mutter like Oswald Spengler. And to the left, we have the Just Stop Oil boys and gals: a collection of budding hooray Henrys and Henriettas with a passion for wrecking art and livelihoods.
Neither, it must be said, gives one much hope for my the contribution of my fellow youngsters to political discourse. But wait! Help appears to be at hand. Step forward, Munira Mirza. Mirza – formerly Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, a Deputy Mayor of Boris Johnson, and, erm, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party – yesterday launched Civic Future: a new initiative designed to encourage talented young people into public life, and prepare them for the associated challenges. It’s a non-partisan Swinton College for the TikTok generation.
Mirza’s pitch is simple. When she was in government, she was consistently disappointed by how politicians and public servants ran the country. Despite being highly capable, Munira found herself continually have to adapt and learn on the spot as to how to handle serious issues. Yet, as she put it in The Times, “utter incompetence” was not total. She would, on occasion, stand “in awe as someone from an under-appreciated corner of Whitehall…brought real expertise and brilliance to bear on an apparently irresolvable conundrum.”
Her ambition now is to make that talent and knowledge the norm across politics. This country is not short of ambitious, clever, and ethical young people. But it is not just the pay or lifestyle that causes so many of them to eschew politics for business, science, or the law. An opaque party system, a lack of economic or scientific literacy at the top, plummeting trust in government, a dysfunctional and powerless state yet expensive and inefficient state: all act against the interests of anyone who actually wants to get stuff done and make Britain better.
To change that, Mirza and her team of advisers want to offer fellowship programmes and training to talented individuals both within politics and at its foothills. She wants them to think about the fundamentals of liberal democracy, and the skills and insights that make a great leader. The hope is that with more quality individuals going into politics, our public institutions will be more effective, and our political class more clued up as to what their jobs actually involve – rather than orientating to satisfy the latest demands of Twitter and the media.
None of this should be too controversial. For too long, we have focused on producing young people with ideas over young people who are able to govern. Hence why we have so many think-tanks producing policy documents (and great articles, one notes, for this website) whose offspring struggle once they reach SPAD-dom. On the continent, this practical political training is much more common, whether it is subsidised by the state – as with France’s old École nationale d’administration – or party-based, as with Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation. We lack a UK equivalent.
So Mirza is pushing on an open door. Anyone who observes the ongoing dysfunction of the British state or the deep divides within our political parties would easily be able to say our political class, public institutions, and governing organisations need to improve their talent pool. Ensuring our politicians have a deeper theoretical and practical understanding of their profession – and come from a wider set of backgrounds than Oxbridge, PPE, Tufton Street, and ministerial bag-carrying – can only be a good thing. People of all parties – and none – should be cheering her efforts on.