Interview: David Willetts MP

David Willetts inherited a mouthful of a title when he became the Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skill in July 2007. His official role is to coordinate the Conservatives’ policy on higher education, but his importance to the party stretches beyond this, as he is considered one of its leading intellects.

Any discussion with David (affectionately known as “two brains”) promises to be mentally stimulating, as he discusses the big issues of British politics and Conservative ideology. To the common man he might look every bit the archetypal Tory MP but he is far from fulfilling much of the stereotype. His views are moderate and he is clearly willing to challenge received wisdom in favour of brightening up the intellectual scene.

When I suggest that Gordon Brown’s current malaise might be the catalyst for Willetts’ return to government – he previously served in the Treasury under Nigel Lawson – he responds confidently: “I think that the Conservative party is in better shape than it”s been in for over a decade. People can sense that we are changing; they can sense that we are focusing on the issues that they worry about rather than an inward-looking debate that focuses on our own agenda.” For eleven years, Conservative ministers have been saying the same, generally to deaf ears, but now the message seems to resonate. The Conservatives under Cameron have enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls since the “Brown bounce” last summer, and it looks set to continue.

This does not mean, however, that Willetts is complacent. He is eager to be optimistic but makes the salient point that the Conservatives still have fewer MPs in Parliament now than Michael Foot did after the “disastrous” Labour election of 1983. He is a man who understands the uphill task ahead: “no one,” he cautions, “should be measuring the curtains for their departmental office just yet.”

It is still far too early to predict the outcome of the next general election, but most would certainly argue that it will be the first since 1992 in which the Tories will have a genuinely decent chance of winning. As might be expected of Willetts, he puts it all down to the fruition of new ideas. “There is a recognition that the political renewal of conservatism is also an intellectual renewal.” He castigates the old Tory view that ideas have no place in the political discussions in the “Dog & Duck” and is excited by the party’s willingness to re-engage in intellectual discussion.

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I put to him, therefore, one of the most tricky questions in British politics, “What is conservatism?”. He is quick to stress that the creed has often changed in the party’s history (so much so one would suspect that “being pragmatic” is akin to “being conservative”) but that the debate is hindered by a false dichotomy. “We had,” he argues, “a conventional political debate in which Conservatives were the party of the market and Labour were the party of the state, but a hell of a lot of what matters to most people lies in between the two – the family, the neighbourhood or the community. This is what we mean by the phrase “non-state collective action.””

Willetts has much to say on how to incorporate economic game theory and even evolutionary biology into Conservative political thought. The general idea is that humans gain pleasure in the brain from being able to forge our own collective institutions, and therefore it serves an evolutionary purpose to allow the individual greater economic and political freedom. These hypotheses are still inchoate, but Willetts is willing to grapple with them and perhaps to provide answers out of left field.

When asked about his student days at Oxford, Willetts responds, “I am one of nature’s PPEists and I regard myself as in some ways still doing PPE.” Politics, it seems, is just an extension of university for a man who spent much of his time at Oxford founding societies and arranging meetings. Optimistically, he suggests that “students work harder now than when I was a student.” And after I regretfully correct his mistake, we move on to discussing Conservative policy on universities.

The “student experience” is as close as a buzz word as Willetts will allow himself, and he turns to this phrase when questioned about student funding. The party has called for a 2010 review of university funding so that the impact of top-up fees can be properly measured, but for now Willetts is most concerned with the quality of university life: “What I’m increasingly picking up on is that the quality of the student experience is something that students across the country raise with me more and more – how many essays you’re going to have to write, how accessible the academics are, how much academic feedback you’re going to get and how crowded the seminars are. You can only justify the fees that students are now charged if students are confident that the money is going into improving the student experience.”

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Tony Blair kick-started the university funding debate with his policy that 50% of school leavers should be attending university, thus creating a requirement for extra funding. “I’m sceptical about these abstract targets,” says Willetts, “and we’ve just had some evidence that the percentage of young people going to university has only increased from 37.2 to 37.8 per cent.” He continues: “Your question shows what’s gone wrong with this target, which is that you get a debate about a target rather than a debate about the real world question “how do we ensure that more young people are going to university?” That is a real-world challenge and I’d rather focus on that than on abstract targets that Tony Blair plucked out of the air for effect.”

After our interview I would find it impossible to pigeonhole David Willetts. He understands that government should be realistic and yet believes that it only makes sense in the context of intellectual rigour. He is part of a party which is widely caricatured as “inertia personified” and yet he is keen to draw on the cutting edge of academic research. It’s clear that his days studying PPE at Christ Church have been significant in the making of the senior politician before me. He leaves me with an indication of why the place is so special to him: “There’s a great cartoon of a man sitting in a library, looking up, surrounded by books, and saying, “good God! for a moment then it all made sense.” I learnt about the men of the British Enlightenment at Oxford, and that mix of the cultural, the political and the philosophical is what I think politics is like when it’s at its best. And that’s what makes every day so stimulating as a politician.”