Greasy Pole: Adonis As It Is?

Andreas Adonis. Since May 2005 Life Peer Lord Andrew Adonis. With a record which justifies him, according to which discipline he is involved in, being identified as a politician, an academic, a journalist and author of a number of well-received, solidly quoted books. At present he is in the Chair of something called The National Infrastructure Commission – the meaning of which will be varied according to who is discussing it. In this it may be instructive to bear in mind that he was the first holder of such a post, appointed by two Tory Chancellors in George Osborne and Philip Hammond. Osborne was in no two minds about this: ‘I am delighted to tell you that the former Labour cabinet minister and transport secretary Andrew Adonis has agreed to be the commission’s first chair. He’ll now sit as a cross-bench peer and help us create Britain’s plan for the future…’ This was in spite of the fact that the Adonis roots were originally unpromising. His father came to England from Cyprus, to work in London as a waiter. His mother left the family when Andrew was three years old and did not return, from which it followed that he was placed in the care of a local authority. In this his talents came early into bloom so that he went to Oxford University where he sucked up a First Class degree in Modern History and proceeded to a Doctorate with a thesis on 19th century British aristocracy. At Nuffield College he was appointed a Fellow in History and Politics.


These qualifications should have opened a real prospect of a political career for Adonis but it was hampered by his capricious choice of which party to favour with his loyalty. In the flow of the time he joined the ‘Gang of Four’ and their desperate ambition to flush away the Labour Party, to the extent that he was elected as an SDP councillor for Oxford City. Four years later Adonis was persuaded that he would be better as a councillor under another banner and he chose to do this as a Liberal Democratic City Councillor for another ward in Oxford. But the frustrations ingrained in that party’s ambition to squeeze its way into some prospects of power led to him changing to the Labour Party, newly hopeful under Blair, Gordon Brown and the rest. He was selected as the Labour candidate for a local council election but he refused this in favour of less controversial prospects.

In 1997 he accepted a job in Tony Blair’s Policy Unit with its brief to fashion Labour’s stand on constitutional and educational matters. This put him in charge of the policy, not universally popular, of replacing comprehensive schools which were deemed to be failing with others which would be known by the classier title of academies, to be independently managed. In May 2005 his position was solidified by him being transformed into a Life Peer, which enabled his appointment to supply some energy in the drive to get the policy for academies under way. When he left Education in 2008 there were almost 150 academies in existence with some 300 more in the offing. The whole policy was against the wishes of a significant wedge of trade unionists in teaching and of Labour Party members. But it found favour on the other side, including the Tory Education spokesman Michael Gove who identified himself; ‘We are on the same page as Andrew Adonis’.

Vice Chancellors

But the exact ‘page’ occupied by Adonis and Gove together was never confidently identified. From being an ardent advocate of academies as the major enforcer of what is termed ‘education’, and of the financial requirements which it operated Adonis began abruptly to display an awareness of some accompanying inconvenient problems. This was the devastating publicity given to the increased payouts to retiring university vice-chancellors. For example, it has been estimated that Chris Higgins at Durham got a total of £90,000 a year pension with a lump sum of £270,000 with a similar amount for Anthony Chapman at Cardiff Met. Particularly notable and embarrassing was the case of Glynis Breakwell of Bath with a total of £406,000. Adonis has expended a lot of energy in trying to evade the fact that he bears a great deal of the responsibility for that very situation. Speaking from those red leather benches in the House of Lords he denounced the Vice Chancellors’ ‘opportunism and greed’ and asked ‘How did we get from the idea of a reasonable contribution to the cost of university tuition – the principle of the Blair reform, for which I was largely responsible, to today’s Frankenstein monster of £50,000 plus debts for graduates on modest salaries?’ He also suggested that the fees for which he admits to being responsible should be abolished – all of which went a long way to justify the assessment of him from Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell that he is ‘a chameleon’.

Blair vs Brown

How this was to fit into the political scene was revealed with the approach of the 2010 general election, influenced before the polling stations had even opened by the uncertainty of Tony Blair’s intentions about holding on as Prime Minister against the maniacal bludgeoning ambitions of Gordon Brown. Blair was convinced that he still had a chance provided the voters were able to forget a few minor diversions such as the war in Iraq and other blood-soaked tragedies in the Middle East. However it seemed that it would need a special talent to encourage him to accept this record of those times. In his account of them (A Journey) he justifies his delaying tactics against the pressures to resolve the matter. And in this he received some essential support from someone he describes as ‘typically brilliant’; which of course has to be Lord Adonis. Blair records a letter from Adonis which said ‘in my view it is strongly in the public interest that you continue in office until conference 2007, and possibly beyond into 2008… Your political authority appears to me more than sufficient for this…’ Except that in the event the pressures of mutual admiration between Blair and Adonis could not prevent Brown making it to Number Ten.

As a politician Adonis is unusual for his style in being so ready to change his line to take advantage of the persistent need to mislead what he has interpreted as any pressures from the voters. But any real progress for a humane society will need significantly more than that.


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