Essays

How can I train my sons to get to the top of politics?
JFK

As a teenager I became fascinated by JFK, the charismatic US President. I read several biographies of the Kennedy family. 

I discovered how Joe Kennedy made a fortune in the Prohibition and wanted to groom his sons for the White House. 

The first son died in the war, John won the prize and Robert Kennedy might also have got the prize, had he not been assassinated.

I’m 52 this year. 

Over 30 years ago, I sat in the Oxford Union and watched my contemporaries make their first manoeuvres in the pursuit of political power. 

I remember sitting in the balcony listening to Michael Gove and thinking he’s sure to be in the Cabinet within 20 years. 

It took a bit longer than 20 years, Tony Blair got in the way for a while, but Gove has been at the top of politics ever since. 

Among the others I saw in action: Jacob Rees Mogg, Ed Vaizey, Boris Johnson, Meg Hillier, Simon Hoare and Dan Hannan - now influential characters in British politics.

So I knew of them when they were young, and I’ve followed their rise ever since.

So let’s go back to the question. How could I, as an ambitious parent, prepare my children so they might reach high political office? 

(By the way, I’m not saying that this is what I want - my wife would be appalled - they’re only two and six - I’m using it as a way of analysing our political system)

Like most parents, I’ll encourage them to read voraciously. In time I’ll get them to learn poetry by heart.

The big decisions will come when they get to 13.

Private school would be important, they’re high pressured environments, and very tough socially. 

You have to learn to defend yourself rhetorically. That’s good.

Private school kids act in plays, take part in debates and they get responsibilities like captaining sports teams.

Valuable insight into what it’s like to manage people.

And they get to be friends with the children of other highly ambitious parents.

Next hurdle, get into Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Law or Classics. 

If they succeed, join the Oxford Union debating society and try to get elected to one of the key posts.

They’ll learn how to speak in public. 

The confidence to speak eloquently is the defining skill that will prepare them to get to the top of politics.

That’s how I made my prediction about Michael Gove. 

Boris Johnson had the same talent.

It also helps to write well.

Michael Gove went on to be a journalist, who wrote books. 

Boris Johnson was a journalist, who wrote books. 

It made them famous.

So the Oxford degree offers the status, the Union offers the practical skills. 

Next a transfer to law after university to train to be barristers, or an international bank, to make some money and get an idea how the City works.

But that’s enough of my devious plan.

I don’t approve of this well-worn route.

I want to ask, how can we change it?

I didn’t do PPE, I did French and German. 

My life has been shaped by positive experiences of European culture and politics.

By instinct I’m Tory, but when I got out of university and realised how the world worked, I could never stomach the Euroscepticism that went on to poison every fibre of the Conservative Party.

The leading lights of my Oxford Union generation have caused disaster.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson took us out of the European Union.

Their ‘eloquence’ contributed to the referendum result.

At the same time the European leaders made bad mistakes. 

They’re bureaucratic rather than political, academic rather than street-wise.

Cicero said political speeches need to instruct, delight and move.

The European politicians could only ever reach first base.

Other European countries have equally well-worn routes to high office - and they have produced equally limited politicians.

Where were the supra-national statesmen and women capable of communicating the European idea?

They were happy for us to be subjects, not citizens of a European Union.

If Europe is to have a future, the top European politicians need to be able to speak several languages, including perfect English. 

Frans Timmermans could do it. 

Ursula von der Leyen can do it.

Christine Lagarde can do it, but they’ve all come too late.

Speaking English in a fluent and charismatic style is the only way to have a high profile on the world stage. 

To stop the rise of nationalism, we’re going to need multilingual leaders who can reach beyond national boundaries.

For the past 30 years, I’ve followed politics, but I’ve never managed to rub along with the people who run political parties.

What’s interested me is what are the qualifications to be a politician? 

What skills do they have?

What makes a good one?

It puzzles me that actors go to drama school,  journalists go to journalism school, but professional, career politicians have no school, no exams and no credentials.

They ‘emerge’ from their tribes.

Yes, there’s the College of Europe and more recently the Blavatknik School of Government, but they’re really only open to well-informed elites. 

They’re academic, not practical.

So for the past two years I’ve been thinking.

What kind of new institution could train the top European politicians of the future? 

A kind of European alternative to the Oxford Union (which, by the way is a private club, run by students, it has no direct connection with Oxford University). 

I would want  it to offer short courses where the leaders of the future could get to know each other and learn the two skills that really matter if you want to be effective at the top in the 21st Century: the ability speak eloquently and write well in English. 

My plan is to set up a European School of Rhetoric and Public Performance, inspired by the school founded by Isocrates in Ancient Greece.

We’ll offer intensive training in public speaking with the support of former politicians, historians, speechwriters, acting coaches and voice coaches. 

We’ll give students the tools so they can educate themselves to be great speakers by wide reading in history, literature and philosophy.

It would be a training in practical politics, open to young people who weren’t necessarily academic, open to ethnic and minority groups that wouldn’t know about how to get their children into the College of Europe or Oxford University,  a vocational training that would be useful for the law, for politics, for sales, for teaching and even for the church.

Rhetoric is a rich intellectual discipline that has been forgotten in our over-scientific age. 

In our digital culture, its insights are more powerful than ever.