William F. Buckley Jr famously said that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty. Though, like myself, Buckley was a Yale man, his jibe was intended as a slight against liberal elites in general, not Harvard ones in particular. Still, there’s a grandiosity about Harvard, a smug self-satisfaction dripping from its ivy-covered walls, that lent a sting to Buckley’s quip that would not have been there had he been remarking on the good sense of the common men of New Haven, Connecticut. Given Harvard’s latest appointment, it’s not hard to see what he meant.
Ed Balls has taken up residence at America’s oldest institution of higher learning as a ‘senior fellow’ of its John F. Kennedy School of Government. In so doing, the former shadow chancellor follows in the footsteps of a host of failed Labour politicians.
Balls’s journey to Harvard is really a return, seeing as he earned a master’s degree there (as did his wife, Yvette Cooper). His former colleague and boss on the Labour front bench Ed Miliband also taught at Harvard, though it was for the 2002-2003 semester, long before he commenced his disastrous leadership of the Labour party. (Never to be outdone by his brother, David Miliband delivered this year’s commencement address to the graduating Kennedy School class.) Miliband and Balls got to know each other working in the Treasury administration of Gordon Brown, who himself became a visiting fellow of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP) after his own election defeat in 2010. Brown’s idea of a relaxing summer holiday is to immerse himself in the stacks of Harvard’s world-famous Widener library. (David Muir, Brown’s director of political strategy at No. 10, held an IOP fellowship the following year.)
Lesser Labour figures to grace Harvard Yard include former shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander (who was a frequent guest even before he received his fellowship in 2013), former deputy leader Roy Hattersley (whose 1971 fellows class included Al Gore), and Robert Maxwell, the notorious crook and MP for Buckingham. Shirley Williams snagged herself a Harvard professorship in 1988, a year after marrying historian Richard Neustadt, a co-founder of the Kennedy School. That came after she earned the dubious honour of losing elections as an MP for two parties, Labour and the SDP.
It’s not just Britain that sends former left-wing politicians to Harvard. Kevin Rudd, former Labor prime minister of Australia, signed up with the Kennedy School last year to lead an initiative on a ‘new strategic relationship between China and the United States’. Harvard’s wise men also thought that George Papandreou, the bumbling socialist dauphin who led Greece to the brink of fiscal disaster, had something useful to impart to students, granting him a fellowship in 2012. Political theorist Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Canadian Liberals, returned to his teaching post at Harvard after leading the party to its worst-ever defeat four years ago. In Cambridge, he sports the grand but ambiguous title of ‘Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice’, though hopefully not the practice of politics.
Why the Labour love for Harvard? After all, if a British political party ostensibly committed to representing the interests of the working class is going to establish informal links with an American university, why not one of our many fine state-funded institutions? The University of California system, the University of Michigan, one of the many State University of New York campuses — any of these schools, due to their sheer size and mission, do a far better job providing opportunities to the less well-off than their Ivy League competitors, which by and large cater to the middle and upper classes.
According to Trey Grayson, a one-time Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky and former IOP director, ‘Exposure to British politicians was valuable for our students because the British system (and its culture/history) was similar enough to America, but yet obviously different, to be able to do a good comparative study or have a good comparative discussion.’ He adds that, while current officeholders cannot fit a teaching job into their hectic diaries, ‘the losers and retirees always have time’.
Grayson speculates that this may be the reason for the lack of a Conservative party presence at Harvard — the Tories are ‘busy running the country’. Several Conservatives expressed interest in visiting the school when he visited them in London two summers ago.
Upon closer inspection, the special relationship between Labour and Harvard looks more like a union of Brownites and the Democratic party, long regnant in Massachusetts. Brown forged his Democratic connections in the Massachusetts summer holiday community of Cape Cod, where he often stays at the vacation home of Bob Shrum. A former IOP fellow, Shrum worked as a speechwriter to the late Ted Kennedy, younger brother of the Kennedy School’s namesake. In 2004, Fraser Nelson reported for the Scotsman on a secret dinner when Brown, Kennedy and John Kerry met at London’s Soho House and allegedly talked strategy about Kerry’s then-imminent presidential run. Shrum helped win the 2001 general election for Labour, which must be the finest feather in his cap, considering he lost more presidential campaigns than any other consultant in American history (his 0-8 streak ran straight from George McGovern’s record-breaking 1972 defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon to Kerry’s 2004 loss).
Similar patronage likely helped Balls. When he was getting his masters a quarter of a century ago, the future shadow chancellor studied at the feet of the future Harvard president Larry Summers. After serving as director of Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, Summers returned to a Harvard professorship, and one assumes that this decades-old connection assisted Balls in obtaining his sinecure (the two co-authored a report on ‘inclusive prosperity’ earlier this year).
By sending so many of its failures to Harvard, Labour carries on a grand British tradition of exporting botched ideas to the world. From the leaders of post-colonial Africa (many of whom learned the immiserating principles of state socialism at the London School of Economics) to the wiseass, bullet-headed former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (who took degrees at Essex and Birmingham), the old boys’ club of Brownites at Harvard perpetuates a custom of transmitting bad British thinking to impressionable young minds.
If there’s a name conspicuously absent from the list of Labour party grandees to wind up at Harvard, it’s that of Tony Blair. It might seem strange that Blair, ardently pro-American and elitist to his core, would pass up an opportunity to affiliate himself with what is reputed to be America’s most prestigious university. These days, the former prime minister is in particularly bad odour with his party. In a spiteful repudiation of his legacy, Labour has elected as leader the sort of unreconstructed lefty whom Blair had supposedly made irrelevant upon taking the reins in 1994. Blair is the only Labour leader to have won a single general election — let alone three — in 40 years, and he is the only Labour leader in two decades not to wind up at Harvard after leaving Westminster. I do not find these distinctions coincidental. Blair did what any self-respecting, successful ex-Labour politician would do after quitting politics. He taught at Yale.
THE CRIMSON TIDE
Harvard’s sports colour is crimson… and the hue of its political grandees is often a deep socialist red