John Hayes MP and the bourgeois


Gove-themed streetart, Brighton.

Our energy minister John Hayes seems to enjoy the word “bourgeois”. I don’t blame him, it’s a fun word to say.

Back in October, he described the idea of onshore wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”, arguing that “We need to understand communities’ genuine desire” instead “These things are about the people and I am the people’s minister” (as the Telegraph said, this seemed odd from a Tory minister). I heard him make similar claims to be on the side of the real people in a lecture at Imperial College later that month too. Yesterday he used it again, this time while dismissing David King’s perspective on clearing rainforest for biofuels as “detached, bourgeois views” (from 2hr 40 mins in). Within hours, this line had made it into Hayes’ Wikipedia entry, nestled between references to his low Stonewall rating and membership of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

If Hayes is going to apply the language of class war, we might as well run with it, especially as his perspective reminds me slightly of Soviet agricultural policy. I’m not being facetious. It’s also where I find some worth – as well as the ultimate poverty – of Hayes’ perspective. Let me explain.

Soviet agricultural policy is fascinating stuff. Short version: There is a long-standing Marxist issue with reductionist and determinist nature of genetics (and honestly, Francis Galton was a bit of a dick). A chap called Trofim Lysenko offered an alternative, and ended up dominating Soviet biology and agricultural policy to the extent that dissenters would be sent to the Gulags. Aside from a more socialist view of how nature worked and should be managed, he also offered a character of a self-taught, plain-speaking “barefoot scientist” of the people. It was worked in contrast to an idea of isolated lab-based ivory tower academics apparently more interested in animals and chemicals in bottles than people (good In Our Time on Lysenkosim). It was an attractive message. Even though if was also largely wrong, with disastrous consequences to boot.

In the same way, Hayes’ claim to be for the people sounds attractive too. Many scientists today, even David King, do seem distant and bourgeois. Hayes has a point in that, even if I think it’s ultimately used to disempower the public voice and be anything but as egalitarian as he implies. Who exactly are the publics against wind power? (they prefer it to a shale gas well, at least). And the landgrabs issue behind much of the biofuels story this week? All about inequality.

The last few decades have seen a lot of good work on public engagement with UK science. However, this challenge is huge, especially in the more politically charged issues like climate. It amounts to a quantity of work which frankly we haven’t come close to scratching the surface of investing in enough. Also, at the same time as all the increased public engagement work’s been going on, science education has managed to alienate many members of the general public. There are fees, etc, limiting access to universities but there are deeper problems too. The school-science curriculum is still largely designed to prepare people for A-level then undergraduate science, even though most people won’t take it that far. It’s also (oddly perhaps) influenced by the lobbies who want to keep a distinct identity for chemistry, biology and physics, meaning multidisciplinary, political topics like climate science don’t get the attention they deserve. There have been movements to try to design a science curriculum more focused on making educated publics, not scientists. But the scientific lobby largely manages to undermine it. Interestingly, one of the first UK politicians to really push for this “school science for the people” was Thatcher, Hayes’ Tory class war around science isn’t exactly new.

In recent years, the science lobby has also been actively arguing for “triple science” GCSE as the gold standard for those who want to do science at the top universities. Except there aren’t enough science teachers to go round, so this puts certain schools at an advantage. Tories seem to love triple science. The cynic in me says it’s because they know it keeps the proles out. Science used to be seen as a field open to working class kids – especially compared to classics or literature – but increasingly, it’s not the case. Access to scientific careers is a public relations issue in many ways, because if science is see as something “people like me” wouldn’t do, it’s culturally distant. Simply having friends and family who work in particular fields is one of the most powerful forms of engagement there is.

School science is the only time everyone learns together. We should do it better, and the scientific community need to take a good, hard look at themselves and think about how the choices they make in constructing themselves – or at least their undergrads – may further social inequality. And how this can come back to kick them in the bum when they get called bourgeois.

On the Today Programme, Hayes claimed to be talking about pragmatics: “my principle concern is to keep the lights on, and if the lights went off it’d be no good saying it was for the right reason, energy security is fundamental. It’s all very well having these kind of detached, bourgeois views but I have to deal with the practicalities”. In comparison, King had just been asked if saving the rainforest was a hippie-ish concern to save orangutans. He replied very calmly: “never mind the orangutans, it’s about the oxygen that we breathe, we’re talking about something quite serious”.

Precisely because the desire to breathe isn’t “bourgeois” it’s important scientists work harder to keep the public onside.

Pseudo Tory revolutionary art, Brighton


7 thoughts on “John Hayes MP and the bourgeois

  1. Chris Shaw

    Great stuff. Keeping the class theme going, it is never about simply ‘keeping the lights on’ because I am sure the lights could be kept on within the carbon budgets. It is about ensuring corporations have continued access to whatever energy they need for their profit seeking activities. Strip that element of social activity out of the equation and carbon targets become much more realistic.

    1. alice Post author

      Oh yes, much larger issues of social justice and energy policy that I didn’t bother digging into here because I wanted to focus on science. Arguably why it’s offensive though.

  2. PooterGeek

    You’ve got this exactly the wrong way round.

    Fees don’t keep the less well off out of university. No one pays up front; payment is based on ability to pay; and the less well off will *never* pay back the cost of their higher education. Charging rich kids to support the education of poor ones is a wonderfully progressive thing. Indeed, we now have a nice controlled experiment in Scotland, where, in contrast to England and Wales, free fees have led to middle-class admissions rising relative to working-class ones, neatly exposing free higher education as a subsidy for the middle-classes. It’s a shame poor bright Scottish kid are having to pay the price of making this point.

    The “science lobby” isn’t arguing for triple science to “keep the proles out”. It’s the combination of science into (and demotion to) a touchy-feely, multi-disciplinary, how-do-we-feel-about-nuclear-power? mush in state schools that’s squeezed lower-middle-class and working-class kids out of elite universities (and denied them access to valuable thinking tools for life). The Oxbridge phenomenon of the “Northern Chemist” emerged precisely because rigorous, numerically demanding study with well-defined syllabuses gave (immigrant) kids like me from crappy comprehensives a fair chance of competing with privately-educated sixth-formers. The autistic nature of science means hard work and brains trump cultural capital in the admissions process. The auto-didact scientist won’t be caught out by not knowing how to pronounce “Proust” at interview.

    One last point: It’s not an accident that Thatcher pushed for “science for the people” as you put it; she also closed more grammar schools than anyone else. (Note: I don’t want the return of grammar schools and secondary moderns; It’s just that comprehensives are somehow worse than even secondary moderns for disadvantaged pupils—again there’s a controlled experiment, this time in Northern Ireland, that depressingly makes my point for me.) The middle-classes on the Right and the Left have over the past few decades conspired to construct an education system in the UK that could have been precision-engineered to exclude the poor. And it’s worked. I’m quietly excited that—now the evidence for the terrible effects of this vandalism, this class war, is difficult for even the most ideologically blind educationalist quack to argue against—things might be about to change for the better.

    1. alice Post author

      Well, these things often depend on which way round your politics are… Still, I disagree I have it the wrong way round, and (though maybe it’s cos you’re condensing this to fit in a comment) you seem a bit confused:

      1) Fees – this is complex and honestly, I think sits outside concerns of this post, but as you mention charging rich to pay poor, I like the idea of doing that through tax (and not through loan companies as further way to privatize system).

      2) I’m not calling for “a touchy-feely, multi-disciplinary, how-do-we-feel-about-nuclear-power? mush”. That’s a ridiculous oversimplification. Moreover, I’m also asking for the unis to change what they expect. because at the moment, yes, it would keep people out, but the current system is based on one of limited resources with disproportionally favour posher schools. You’re the one who has this the wrong way around. As for “the autistic nature of science” – I disagree that’s true, though I would say that historical there has been a chance for “hard work and brains to trump cultural capital”. That’s exactly my point. It’s no longer the case, because traditional cultural capital is being replaced with social capital or having access to a science teacher, and that’s something scientists should be worried about.

      3) I wouldn’t say it’s an accident that Thatcher pushed for “science for the people” as you put it. On grammars, there’s a fair bit of research showing that it disproportionally advantages middle class kids more than it ever helped social mobility.

      But I don’t like the idea of social mobility even, and I want to make unis comprehensives.

      1. PooterGeek

        1) How am I “confused” about fees? How is the question “complex”? How is my comment outside the concerns of this post? You say in your original post that fees limit access to university. The evidence from England and Scotland shows exactly otherwise. You can have your own politics; you can’t have your own facts.

        2) It’s hard to think of anything more insulting to ordinary people than to say, “Well, the quality of teaching in state schools is poorer than in private ones, let’s lower university admissions requirements to get them in,” or “Let’s have a different kind of science teaching in state schools because we can’t get the staff”. The ultimate destination of this cascade of low expectations is simply to award degrees in inverse proportion to students’ parents’ incomes. If the problem is a shortage of science teachers, why not pay science graduates more to teach in schools and have them teach rigorous science? If you want to break down the class system, teaching a different class of science in “less posh” schools might not be the cleverest way of achieving your goal.

        3) “Science for the people” is your (quoted) phrase, not mine. I can only say again, as I did in my original post, that I am against a return to grammar schools. The fact remains that our present system binds educational outcomes even more tightly to parents’ incomes than even the already-unfair grammar / secondary modern system did. We’ve replaced selection by 11-Plus with selection by house price. Everything you advocate here would make that even worse.

        As for the mind-boggling idea of “comprehensive” universities, I don’t know where to begin. So I won’t.

        I have no problem with your disagreeing with me. But it would be nice if you didn’t accuse me of being “confused” in a comment that makes little sense in itself and seems to have been written without your reading not only my comment but your own original post.

        1. alice Post author

          I didn’t accuse of you being confused, I said you sounded confused to me though that might be just condensing what I’m sure is complex and thoughtful ideas into a blog comment.

          I’m not saying the quality of teaching in comps isn’t so good. I’m saying access to triple science isn’t available to all. You might like this:

          And here’s the stuff on comprehensive unis. IIRC, Willetts’ SPAD agreed with parts of it at the time…

          I have no problem with you disagreeing with me, but don’t strawman me. Moreover, if you find me so ridiculous I find it very strange that you bother to read my blog.

    2. Kieron Flanagan

      Surely it is not beyond our ability to both provide every schoolkid with an education which provides both sufficient grounding in the sciences to be able to go on and study further if desired and a richer understanding of the ways science, technology, society, economy and polity interact. If done well (a precondition for anything) this would produce better ‘equipped’ citizens, whether they go on to be scientists or not. PS, not sure why it matters but I’m also an immigrant kid from a ‘crappy comprehensive’ (it was certainly crappy on paper – it gave me a good education in practice).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s