Few surprises

NOW the British election is over. There were few surprises. The Labour Government was re-elected, as it was expected to be. The voters showed little interest, and turnout was lower than at any time since 1918, just after World War I. As I suggested recently, such a level of abstention is a worrying feature of British life. My reason for mentioning the election again, however, is that it led me indirectly to reflect on another aspect of that national life.

On polling day I had to speak at the inaugural meeting of a new branch of the Cambridge Society, a membership organisation for people connected with the University. The meeting took place in a beautiful 16th Century castle which for about 50 years has been part of a school some 40 km from Cambridge.

The location was chosen because the secretary of the new branch was a member of the teaching staff of the school until his retirement last year. When he retired, he had been on the staff for 37 years. Those attending the meeting were taken on a conducted tour of the castle. Our guide was another recently retired member of the teaching staff, who had served for 36 years.

He made the point that younger members of the staff tended to stay for only a few years, before moving elsewhere to further their careers. He agreed that this ensured that new ideas were imported, but he regretted one consequence, namely that many of these younger colleagues did not immerse themselves - did not have time to immerse themselves - in the history of the building in which they worked. For them, he suggested, it was just a place of work; for his generation it was a way of life.

There have indeed been major changes in recent years in the career patterns which people can expect. Few people now can expect to spend their whole working lives with one organisation. Advancement and career progression are more likely to be achieved by moving from one organisation to another than by embedding oneself in a single organisation, be it school, or commercial company.

That this change has occurred is a reflection of realities rather than of conscious policy. It has brought advantages and disadvantages, but the change itself is neutral. One of the advantages is a greater dynamism, as new people import new ideas to an organisation. One of the disadvantages is an erosion of the concept of loyalty - in both directions. Employees looking for their next move are less likely to commit themselves to their employer. Employers are less likely to feel a commitment to their staff. The sense of "ownership", of involvement in everything the organisation stands for, is rarer than it was.

Anyone looking for a dramatic illustration of the transient nature of commitment would have found it on the morning after the general election. Faced with a serious defeat for his party, William Hague, the Conservative leader, announced his decision to resign. He will soon retreat into political history. Several leading lights in the pre-election Labour government, who have been demoted, or even not given jobs in the new government, quickly discovered that in the rough old game of politics, leading lights can easily be extinguished. Ministerial careers are successful only for so long as the Prime Minister decides. Political careers generally are notoriously vulnerable and short term and always have been.

The constraints of political life are of course different from those in "normal" employment. Nevertheless, the growing congruence with careers in other fields is noteworthy. As I write, the University of Cambridge is looking forward to the regular annual visit of its Chancellor, who is coming to preside over the ceremony of awarding honorary degrees to distinguished people, and to visit some of the University's departments. The Chancellor is the Duke of Edinburgh, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday, and continues to undertake a full programme of official engagements, as he has done for half a century. (His chancellorship of Cambridge has lasted for 25 years.)

For many years in Britain, the future of the monarchy has been a topic of discussion, and indeed of controversy. So long as monarchy exists, however, it is by its very nature likely to reflect permanence and continuity. If those characteristics seem more remarkable than they used to do, the reason is not hard to find; in our changing world, where short-term contracts are the order of the day, permanence and continuity increasingly have a rarity value.


The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at wpk1000@cam.ac.uk