From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK.

September 4. The Rise of an Historian

Here’s a question for you.  Who is the author of this PhD?

“This research takes a chronological approach, in order to trace both the development of policy and of the role of the JIC within central government. It explores the major crises of the period: the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, the riots in East Berlin of June 1953 and the 1958-61 Berlin Crisis. Away from these crises, the thesis examines the picture that the JIC painted of Soviet intentions and capabilities in Eastern Germany and of the development of the two German nations.”

The answer is the second, or joint second, most powerful man in the British political system.  Should he wish so to do, the new Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service could describe himself as Dr. Simon Case.  At a certain point in his late twenties, he decided not to publish his thesis and pursue a university career, although he has retained an association with academic life and is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.  Instead he passed the exams for fast track entry into the civil service.  Thereafter he rose rapidly, until he fell out with the then chief Brexit negotiator in 2018, and after three months working on the Irish problem left for what was surely the dead-end job of Private Secretary to the Duke of Cambridge.  Now amidst the massacre of Permanent Secretaries, he has been recalled to active service. 

The question for us all is not so much his indecent youth, as his academic qualification.  Should we worry that the country is now being run by two historians in their forties?

A further degree gives only qualified assurance.  I spent my adult life in the company of men and women with a doctorate, and supervised a fistful of students seeking to obtain one.  I know whereof I speak.  Demonstrated command of what is usually a very narrow field of knowledge is not to be confused with any level of general intelligence or practicality.  I have worked with holders of PhDs whom you would not trust to write an online shopping list, much less unpack the groceries on arrival.   However, Case appears to have been an exception.  His supervisor Peter Hennessy has said that “He had a muscularity of intellect and masses of intellectual curiosity, plus precise organisational gifts which you don’t usually see in students.”  A historian who can tie his shoe-laces unaided is indeed a promising prospect.

The larger question resolves itself into a narrower issue: can he defeat ‘hard rain’ Cummings in the battle to politicise the civil service. 

There are two grounds for hope, beyond the general fact that after the brutal dismissal of his predecessor, he is unsackable for the time being (unless Johnson goes the full Trump and dismisses all his senior officials every year).

The first is that his academic mentor was not, as in Cummings’ case, Norman Stone, the most morally corrupt senior historian of the modern era (see Diary 27 April), but the upright Peter Hennessy (see Diary 23 June), the wisest and best informed of all historians of contemporary British politics.  And Hennessy backs him: “There is nothing flash or histrionic. He is one of those people you find every now and again in professional life who are so capable that you don’t mess around with them because they are a level above.”

The second is that the completion of the long, lonely road of a Ph.D in the humanities is at least a measure of persistence.  This is someone who has demonstrated a capacity to take the slow road to achieving his goal.  Cummings has never held any post for much more than a year and will be out of Number 10 before the end of 2021, for whatever cause.   Case will outlast the man who despises the civil service, and with any luck will turn out to be its creative defender.

*you can read the full thesis at: https://qmro.qmul.ac.uk/xmlui/handle/123456789/1495

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