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Review of David Willetts’s updated ‘The Pinch’

  • 10 February 2020
  • By Edward Maxfield

This book review was kindly contributed by Dr Edward Maxfield, CEO of a small charity, a Liberal Democrat councillor and co-author of 101 Ways to Win an Election. He has a lifetime interest in education policy and worked as a lobbyist for Universities UK from 2009 to 2011.

It seems like everyone right now is talking about inter-generational fairness. In the wake of a general election that turned many norms on their head, commentators and campaigners are wrestling with what lies behind the tumultuous story of UK politics over the last three years – or is it the last decade? So, it is timely that the granddaddy of the genre – Lord David Willetts – has seen the second edition of his book The Pinch launched on to the bookshelves.

Many in the higher education world will know David Willetts best for his time as Minister for Universities and Science. In that role he oversaw reform of undergraduate fees that kick-started a revolution in the funding, feel and shape of the sector.

But Willetts is more than just a former junior minister. Christened ‘Two Brains’ long before he took on his government role, he is one of a rare breed: a deep-thinking politician. The first edition of The Pinch, published in 2010, asked some important questions. The author claims the new edition is substantially updated with new research and data. That is true, although Willetts is also keen to use it to distance himself from the beasting of ‘#OKBoomers’ that has become a trend on social media. And to wave the banner for his own higher education policy.

Self-justification aside then, does the updated The Pinch remain relevant for post-Brexit Britain?

Willetts starts with a broad historical sweep that roots specifically English society in values of trust, freely drawn contracts, an active central state and small nuclear families. It is an unmistakeably conservative prospectus that has echoes of Oakeshott. It sounded relevant in 2010 as the Conservative Party came to power after 13 years of New Labour. It sounds relevant now as the Conservatives return to government with a secure majority and a new leader. A leader who seems to have a firm concept of his own politics and values but an impish determination not to let on to the public what those politics are. Disruption works for a while in any institution but sooner or later the storming has to stop and the forming has to start. Willetts’ civic conservativism potentially offers one banner around which the new generation of leaders might start to gather.

Willetts retains his core point about the current generation of young people being locked out of social progress by property prices and stagnant wages. But he reinforces it with newly relevant worries about the long-term impact of climate change. He points also to the widespread loss of trust in civic institutions (not just the state but the Third Sector too).

He highlights the corrosive danger of unfettered individualism which dissipates empathy and undermines the reciprocity that underpins an effective free, but also social market. He quotes research showing that we devote more time than ever to our children while paying a reducing amount of attention to our teens when it comes to public policy. Creating little princes and princesses that we cast out into an increasingly unstable world to fend for themselves.

He casts a critical eye at educational institutions. No one can doubt his passionate interest in higher education. The fundamental notion that universities are powerful economic engines remains at the core of his thinking:

In a modern market economy we are part of intricate networks of specialised labour. We depend on many other people delivering goods and services: it matters to us that they should be suited to their jobs and do them well. We cannot expect to be a successful dynamic economy if we waste talent.

But with social mobility stagnating Willetts claims the education system has become part of the problem when it should be at the centre of the solution. By making every good job dependent on a degree we risk closing off routes to progress for those who have different aptitudes even while we accelerate the progress of those who do fit the university mould.

The book is an interesting and valuable read. It is accessibly written and packed with nuggets of research that are stitched together in a cohesive whole. But The Pinch still lacks bite in one important respect. When Willetts looks to fix the future, his solutions are surprisingly tame. His three big ideas for rebalancing the state are to moderate increases in pensions, find a new way of funding social care and to pay more tax to fund the NHS.

Perhaps it is his innate conservatism, or the wearying experience of decades spent at the policy coalface, that produced such mundane proposals but I was hoping for something bigger. Something more ambitious and society-shaping that would reflect the breadth of his analysis. Perhaps we will have to wait for Gen Z to find its own solutions; to heal the rift between the Boomers and their children that David Willetts is anxious not to stoke. Time will tell and I am strangely optimistic that they will. This book may well help them find their way.

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