As part of our project on special advisers the Constitution Unit has produced a brief research note looking at special advisers who went on to become Cabinet Ministers. This blog post picks out some key findings and offers some thoughts about what the findings tell us about special advisers and wider concern with the professionalisation of politics.
In this project, we are building an evidence base that will provide the most detailed description yet of who special advisers are. We are therefore interested in what special advisers go on to do after their time in government.
Among the many destinations for special advisers later in their careers are the most senior posts in British politics. The Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition were both special advisers and the speed of their ascent to the head of their parties has been noted by Phil Cowley as exceptional in post-war British politics. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have experience as Cabinet ministers but that is relatively rare among their fellow special advisers.
As the Unit’s research makes clear, just 16 Cabinet ministers were previously special advisers. To provide some context: Cabinet usually has 22 full members at any time; and there have been over 500 individuals who were special advisers before May 2010. Less than 5% of special advisers go on to become Cabinet ministers. This suggests that the widespread perception of special advisers as simply politicians in training is mistaken.
British Cabinets are still largely made up of people who have not served as special advisers to Ministers. The Labour government more than doubled the number of special advisers in post at any time, and it is associated with a handful of high profile special advisers turned Ministers. Under Gordon Brown,four former special advisers were brought into the Cabinet. From 2007-2010, former special advisers made up nearly one third of the Cabinet: the highest ever proportion in British political history, though this seems low for the supposed age of the professional politician Whether such levels will be reached or surpassed again is a matter for speculation.
Lord Adonis is on record as praising the experience of being a special adviser as an excellent apprenticeship for future Ministers. He says he benefitted from it. Nowhere else does one get the opportunity to experience life at the top of government as a political actor, learning how Whitehall responds to your requests. Nowhere else can one see the difficulties, pitfalls and routes to success for a Cabinet Minister so closely. Like all apprenticeships, taking this experience on board and putting it into practice when your turn comes round can surely aid performance.
The fact that only a minority of Cabinet ministers were previously special advisers serves to remind us that there is no one route to the highest offices in government. That will come as a relief to critics concerned about the professionalisation of politics and as a disappointment to Adonis and his ilk. In relation to the special advisers project, this information helps us to think clearly about the sort of skills, experience and other benefits that special advisers receive from their job. How much of the success of Cameron, Miliband et al., is due to the skills and political networks they developed during their time as a special adviser?
The research note contains more detailed information than this blog post and we encourage you to download it here.