Politics: The Arrival of More Management Consultants at Downing Street Bodes Ill. Rather Than Injecting Real Business Experience into Government, Blair Is Recruiting in His Own Image

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), June 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Politics: The Arrival of More Management Consultants at Downing Street Bodes Ill. Rather Than Injecting Real Business Experience into Government, Blair Is Recruiting in His Own Image


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


A favoured definition of a management consultant is someone who borrows your watch, tells you the time, then charges you for the information. Dilbert, the cartoon character created by Scott Adams, says: "It takes more than a brilliant analytical mind to be a business consultant ... You also need to be arrogant and socially dysfunctional."

Consultants are taken very seriously in Westminster and Whitehall. David Bennett, the new head of policy in Downing Street, is a former partner of McKinsey, the bluest of the blue-chip strategy consultancies, known because of its influence as the Brotherhood. He joins a cluster of former Brothers in No 10--John Birt, Adair Turner and Nick Lovegrove. Their influence is rattling unions and rank-and-file MPs. (They may be worrying too much: remember that William Hague, too, is ex-McKinsey.)

The appeal of the Brothers to Blair has three dimensions: brainpower, an apparent knowledge of the business world, and lack of ideological conviction. McKinsey attracts the cream of graduates. When it comes to intellectual ability, they leave MPs and most special advisers in the dust. And their confidence is unshakeable. You never hear phrases such as "er, I'm not sure about that" or "perhaps I got that wrong" from a Brother.

At the same time, the McKinseyites' lack of ideology, tribal loyalty and strong party affiliation are all huge pluses for the Prime Minister. The Guardian waspishly pointed out that Bennett "has no experience of politics or government". But that's the whole point of consultants. They often have no experience of working in their commercial clients' sector, either. Consultants are experts only in their own expertise.

And if politics has indeed become an essentially technocratic exercise, bright management consultants make good partners. Unhindered by history and free of political philosophy, they are interested only in finding the right technical solution to any given problem, from NHS reform to the national curriculum. If "what counts is what works", McKinsey is more help than Marx. If a McKinseyite thinks that Tawney is a bird, who cares?

The Brothers also seem to bring into the government something that Blair lacks, envies and admires: business savvy. One of the great weaknesses of Labour administrations has been their want of experience on the commercial side of life. It was said of the group around John F Kennedy that "listening to them talk about business was like listening to a bunch of nuns talk about sex".

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