Oration for Baron David Willetts

By Professor Gordon Campbell

David Willetts was until recently the Member of Parliament for Havant, in Hampshire. He has now been raised to the peerage as Lord Willetts of Havant.  Despite these Hampshire associations, David is a son of the Midlands, and was educated at King Edward's School in Birmingham before reading PPE -- Philosophy, Politics and Economics -- at Christ Church Oxford, where he graduated with a First. He entered the world of politics as a researcher for Nigel Lawson, who represented Blaby, here in Leicestershire. David then moved to the Treasury, where he rose rapidly. He become private Secretary to Nicholas Ridley, who was then Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He subsequently joined the Treasury's Monetary Policy Division, to which he was appointed at the age of 26; this was of course long before responsibility for monetary policy was shifted to the Bank of England. After two years in this post David moved to the Prime Minister’s Downing Street Policy, and thence to the post of Director of Studies at the Centre for Policy Studies.

In 1992 David Willetts entered Parliament as the MP for Havant. His talent was quickly spotted. He  became a Whip, rejoicing in the title of Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury. He was then appointed as a Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office, which is a ministerial position, and then promoted to the post of Paymaster General, and so number three in the Treasury. All of this was accomplished in the course of David Willetts' first parliamentary term. It was during this period that David Willetts was saddled with the nickname 'Two Brains'.  He has since commented that 'Of course in the Conservative Party it was a complete disaster having a nickname like that.... The implication is "dangerous intellectual, out of touch with the world.'''  The world of politics seldom is seldom at ease with intellectuals, but as we were later to discover, David's intellectual distinction made him a natural ally of our universities.

The advent of Mr Blair's three governments cast the Conservatives into opposition, and after an initial stint as Opposition front bench spokesman on employment, David Willetts held a series of appointments as Shadow Secretary of State: for Education and Employment,  for Social Security, for Work and Pensions, for Trade and Industry, for Education and Skills, and finally for Universities and Skills. In the wake of the election of 2010, when the Conservatives formed a coalition with the LibDems, he was appointed Minister of Universities and Science and invited to attend Cabinet. David served in this post with distinction until 2014.  He is now a Visiting Professor at King's College London and an Honorary Fellow at Nuffield College Oxford. He is also been active as a governor of the Ditchley Foundation, and as a Council Member of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Somehow he has also found time to write a long series of books, pamphlets and essays, usually on economic and social policy. His most recent book is The Pinch, which is subtitled How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give it Back. The argument is that the wealth of the baby boomer generation has been created at the expense of the younger generation, and that if our politicians and cultural leaders (a category that includes our universities) refuse to rise to the challenge, the next generation, including those present today, will have to work longer hours for less pay, pay more taxes, suffer a diminution of opportunity for social mobility and live in a degraded environment. It is an extraordinary book, and it attracted praise from unlikely quarters, including the editorial page of The Guardian.

Last year David became Executive Chair of an excellent  think-tank known as the Resolution Foundation. The Conservative Party is often described (or traduced, depending on your point of view) as a party that promotes the interests of the rich. For the leading intellectual of this Party to be appointed to the chair of a Foundation committed to raising the standard of living of low- and middle-income families is very pleasing indeed, especially as he has been joined by a Director with a Labour background. In a sense, this appointment marks the movement of David Willetts from party politician to statesman.

The credibility that such attitudes and activities conferred on David Willetts contributed to the good relations that he maintained with the university sector, despite the strains occasioned by the advent of tuition fees. Beyond his credentials as an intellectual, David Willetts also offered a unusual range of imaginative sympathies: when many members of his government and of HM Opposition took a crudely instrumental view of higher education centred on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), David Willetts remained a friend of the humanities and social sciences, and insisted on their importance as part of higher education provision in this country. This does not imply any antipathy for science. Indeed,  David Willetts has a long history of support for the UK science economy and is now Chair of the British Science Association.

In recent years David Willetts has become a friend of this University. He opened a space research facility in our Department of Physics and Astronomy, and he has praised the work of the University, including our establishing of partnerships in Kurdistan, and, more recently, our discovery of the remains of Richard III.  In June 2015 the University of Leicester launched its Chancellor's Lecture series. Our Chancellor is a Labour peer, but his choice for the inaugural lecturer was David Willetts, who spoke with great eloquence about 'The Future of the UK Science Innovation System'. Today we honour David Willetts for his distinguished record in parliament, for his advocacy on behalf of Britain's universities, for his engagement with the university sector, and for his continuing work on behalf of all of us.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present David Lindsay Willetts, that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws.

Delivered by Professor Gordon Campbell on 15 July 2016

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