The paradox of politics

Francis Beckett on too many students

Politics is an increasingly popular subject, and courses are generally oversubscribed. But they are not filled with future top politicians. If you want to be a judge, a law degree isn't a bad career move, but a politics degree is not the first rung of the ladder to cabinet office. No politics graduate has yet made it to 10 Downing Street. Tony Blair read law, John Major had no degree at all, and Margaret Thatcher qualified as a research chemist. Of the present cabinet, only David Blunkett studied politics (at Sheffield). "People who choose to read politics," the economics graduate Roy Hattersley once wrote, "should make the choice for only one reason - the subject interests them."

Yet politics has had more applicants every year for the past four years, and this year applications are up by 17 per cent. This seems contrary to the spirit of the times, for two reasons. First, the young are popularly supposed to be turned off by politics, with fewer people voting at every general election. Second, they are under far greater pressure than before to study for a degree that will get them employment.

But the young are not really turned off politics; they are turned off the goings-on in the Westminster village, says Professor David Denver of Lancaster University. "They might be turned off voting for British parties because British politics are not at an interesting stage, with Blair being more or less a Conservative," he says, but he finds them fiercely interested in great political issues: war, famine, the environment.

According to Professor Martin Shaw at Sussex University, "a significant minority of young, educated people have been galvanised by the controversy over globalisation, and recently over the Iraq war". He gives much of the credit to President George W Bush: "They have seen how international politics are now very polarised, and are very aware of how the politics of the Bush administration have shaken up the world, often in destructive ways."

But are they not increasingly concerned about doing a degree that will get them a job? When I was an undergraduate at the end of the 1960s, we chose our degree on Hattersley's criterion. We did not have to pay fees, we had a grant, and we knew that a graduate was likely to get a job, so we studied whatever interested us. My generation has decided that the freedom we had is too good for our children, and we have pulled up the ladder we climbed. It made me sad to hear my son, Peter, having chosen to study politics, wondering whether he ought to do something more vocational.

Peter steadied his nerve quickly, and is starting his course at Leeds University as you read this. His motivation meets the Hattersley criterion: "I remember being very young and thinking about news stories and politics. I always enjoyed watching the news, forming a view on something they'd show, and then trying to knock it down to see if it stood up to my own criticism." He marched against the Iraq war, and dates his interest from the 1992 general election, when he was six and I took him canvassing for Labour. He does not recall (but I remind him) that in the committee room, he watched the elderly party worker hand out canvass cards and despatch us to different streets, and whispered to me: "Is that Neil Kinnock?"

Denver says that most politics undergraduates take the subject because it interests them, and decide later what they will do for a living. But he adds: "Our students are employable because we teach them to think critically. Our employment record is good, but there's no obvious clustering of the sort of employment they go into." A politics degree provides what Jack Arthurs of Newcastle University, who is executive director of the Political Studies Association, calls "transferable analytic skills".

But Shaw has detected some clustering, and it mirrors the reason why politics is popular. "A lot of people want to work in campaigning and government organisations, where they can make a difference - though there are not enough jobs there for everyone who wants them, and they generally make you do internships."

No one mentions getting your foot on the bottom of what Disraeli called the greasy pole and becoming a top politician - which is a good thing, because it's the one career for which a politics degree appears not to equip you particularly well.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns