Magazine article The Spectator

The Human Hand Grenade

Magazine article The Spectator

The Human Hand Grenade

Article excerpt

Liz Truss wants to blow away the obstacles to success in modern Britain

You can tell a lot about a minister from their bookshelves. Some display photos of themselves with the great and the good, others favour wonky texts. As you walk into Elizabeth Truss's seventh-floor office in the Department of Education, the first thing you see is a think-tank pamphlet:

'The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution'.

Knowing Truss, I half expect she put it there to provoke; a symbol of her radicalism.

She grew up in a left-wing household and says, 'My first political experience was going on a CND march, which taught me a certain political style.'

I've heard her nickname in the department is the human hand grenade. When I ask why, her response shows the hand grenade in action.

'Well, there are two civil servants in this meeting, ' she says, turning to the press officers with us. 'Maybe they can elucidate?'

One looks uncomfortable and says: 'I'm not being interviewed!' 'That's a Jeremy Paxman-style answer, ' says Truss and turns to the other, who says quietly, 'I'll leave it to you.'

'Maybe, ' she says, 'it's because I put civil servants on the spot.'

Truss won the minister to watch at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards last week, and she talks about the problems facing the country in a more direct manner than most new ministers dare to. She attributes Britain's failure to compete globally to the poor skills of people here. She warns that 'the proportion of our population who don't have basic skills is very high in comparison with other countries'. This is a 'culture and an education problem', she says .

Her views on this issue date back to a year she spent in Canada when she was 12.

'The whole culture was people wanting to do well and succeed. People wanted to be the top of the class, going home and working on your homework was a good thing. While the school I was at in Leeds was the opposite.'

She complains that people in this country have an 'ingrained attitude that destiny is defined'. She bemoans that this is a 'self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't think that, then you're likely to do better.'

Truss is one of only four working mothers in the government. This gives her a particular perspective on child care, one of her ministerial responsibilities alongside the curriculum. 'When I went to Berlin, ' she says, 'I saw that they ensure that all parents have 6 a. m.

to 6 p. m. child care on site at their local primary school. That's a good reason to move to Berlin!'

Truss wants to make child care here more like it is in Europe. 'I favour the continental systems which give more autonomy to providers, have more incentives around high quality and well paid staff - rather than our system, which is very prescriptive at quite a micro level but has some of the lowest salaries in Europe.'

There'd be more working mothers if child care were more affordable, Truss argues:

'Fifty per cent of mothers who are currently at home looking after their children want to go out to work and 50 per cent don't.' Careful to avoid the mummy wars, Truss is quick to note that either is an equally valid choice, but she's soon back to her favourite theme. 'Let's help the ones who want to go out to work. If those who want to go out to work did, they'd contribute about £6 billion to the economy. …

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