The human hand grenade

Meet the minister who wants to blow away the obstacles to success in modern Britain

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

You can tell a lot about a minister from their bookshelves. Some display photos of themselves with the great and the good, others favour wonky texts. As you walk into Elizabeth Truss’s seventh-floor office in the Department of Education, the first thing you see is a think-tank pamphlet: ‘The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution’.

Knowing Truss, I half expect she put it there to provoke; a symbol of her radicalism. She grew up in a left-wing household and says, ‘My first political experience was going on a CND march, which taught me a certain political style.’

I’ve heard her nickname in the department is the human hand grenade. When I ask why, her response shows the hand grenade in action.

‘Well, there are two civil servants in this meeting,’ she says, turning to the press officers with us. ‘Maybe they can elucidate?’ One looks uncomfortable and says: ‘I’m not being interviewed!’ ‘That’s a Jeremy Paxman-style answer,’ says Truss and turns to the other, who says quietly, ‘I’ll leave it to you.’

‘Maybe,’ she says, ‘it’s because I put civil servants on the spot.’

Truss won the minister to watch at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards last week, and she talks about the problems facing the country in a more direct manner than most new ministers dare to. She attributes Britain’s failure to compete globally to the poor skills of people here. She warns that ‘the proportion of our population who don’t have basic skills is very high in comparison with other countries’. This is a ‘culture and an education problem’, she says.


Her views on this issue date back to a year she spent in Canada when she was 12. ‘The whole culture was people wanting to do well and succeed. People wanted to be the top of the class, going home and working on your homework was a good thing. While the school I was at in Leeds was the opposite.’ She complains that people in this country have an ‘ingrained attitude that destiny is defined’. She bemoans that this is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t think that, then you’re likely to do better.’

Truss is one of only four working mothers in the government. This gives her a particular perspective on child care, one of her ministerial responsibilities alongside the curriculum. ‘When I went to Berlin,’ she says, ‘I saw that they ensure that all parents have 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. child care on site at their local primary school. That’s a good reason to move to Berlin!’

Truss wants to make child care here more like it is in Europe. ‘I favour the continental systems which give more autonomy to providers, have more incentives around high quality and well paid staff — rather than our system, which is very prescriptive at quite a micro level but has some of the lowest salaries in Europe.’

There’d be more working mothers if child care were more affordable, Truss argues: ‘Fifty per cent of mothers who are currently at home looking after their children want to go out to work and 50 per cent don’t.’ Careful to avoid the mummy wars, Truss is quick to note that either is an equally valid choice, but she’s soon back to her favourite theme. ‘Let’s help the ones who want to go out to work. If those who want to go out to work did, they’d contribute about £6 billion to the economy. There’s a big economic prize to be had.’

It is not just a numbers game for Truss. She describes helping mothers who want to return to work as a ‘social good’. She worries that when women lose their link to the world of work they end up going back to less-skilled jobs than they should. She laments ‘the way that as a country we waste talent. We could get so much more out of people which would bring them personal fulfilment and would also help our economy.’

Truss’s other great passion is maths. ‘My daughter was here in the department looking at the maths textbooks from Singapore — she just really wanted to try them out and she’s six. She’s got that thirst for knowledge unencumbered by the cynicism of adolescence.’ The message Truss takes from this is that ‘sometimes we try to make things relevant and say it has to be fun, but actually children want to know stuff about how the adult world works’. She frets that in previous curriculums, ‘too many things have been standardised and actually made boring by all being laid out in that way’.

Truss, of course, is not the first radical Tory working mother. She’s happy to call herself ‘a bit of a Thatcherite’. Strikingly, she sees today’s more socially liberal Britain as a product of Thatcherism. ‘What had happened by the mid-1990s,’ she explains, ‘was that the Tories were out of step with the social feelings of the country. So, when Tony Blair came in and introduced civil partnerships, the British people were ready for it. We hadn’t fully realised as a party the change in society that, in fact, we had unleashed.’

The conversation moves on to the Conservative party’s ‘great matter’: this country’s membership of the European Union. When I ask her what kind of relationship Britain should want with the EU, she replies immediately: ‘A looser one.’ ‘We have to think seriously about renegotiation and what we should say if we don’t get what we want,’ she adds. I take this as a coded way of signalling her support for her departmental superior Michael Gove, who has made clear that renegotiation will only succeed if Britain is prepared to say we will leave if we don’t get what we need. She confines herself, though, to an emphatic ‘I always agree with my boss.’

It is clear Truss has huge respect for Gove. She describes him as an ‘incredibly talented politician with a very strong sense of conviction’. Despite all his protestations to the contrary, Truss believes that Gove would be a good prime minister. ‘I don’t think there’s a vacancy at the moment,’ she says, ‘but I do think he would be.’

Considering Truss’s rapid rise and her forthright views, I wonder if she would fancy being prime minister herself sometime in the future. She replies, but without the usual certainty in her voice, ‘No, not particularly.’ She even concedes that her no ‘is not as emphatic as Michael Gove’s no’.

Truss sets herself high targets. Her aim is for Britain to be ‘a very successful country’. In a break with all the early Cameroon talk of general wellbeing, she stresses that ‘you can quantify it in terms of how much wealth our citizens have’. She also wants to see Britain topping the international educational league tables. If she can achieve that, then the human hand grenade will have blown away most of the obstacles to success in modern Britain.

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Show comments
  • http://www.facebook.com/john.maloney.39904 John Maloney

    A woman holding her views on sex education in PSE lessons should not be allowed to hold office. The idea that teachers should be forced to endorse gay marriage is unacceptable -the state cannot force individuals to alter their belief sysyems.
    Also the suggestion that teachers should teach young children about pornography is beyond the pale. I feel sorry for her children. There may be some children who lack parental influence who might benefit from advice on dealing with pornography, but for the vast majority this a totally unnecessary step which is more likely to encourage rather than discourage involvement in this area. She should be sacked.

  • Anthony Makara

    Of course the counter-argument being that children brought up in the creche and learning to have breakfast and their teatime meals in school while mummy works are children prone to all manner of insecurities and emotional strains as they lack the security of a settled home life and are denied quality time with a non-working parent who has the time to pass on moral values. The more the mothers of young children work, the less parenting the child receives. While this may suit certain parents who are happy to pay others to take on the responsibility, it devalues parenthood and parental respect from the child’s perspective. A politician that claims to support the family shouldn’t be so keen to erode motherhood and parenting.

    • Matthew Whitehouse

      Could not have put it better!

  • martinde

    At the risk of seeming too literally minded, does not a grenade explode only once, after which it is in smithereens? Ms Truss appears to be overly confident in her remedies.A Conservative might reflect on the couplet “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” But she seems more to belong to the school that imagines the solution to social problems lies with ‘stakeholders’ and outsourced ‘providers’.

  • Vanitas

    Token blonde ambition. Had an affair with Mark Field MP for Westminster and City of London. Has achieved little but bad eyebrows and remarkable (not in a good way) taste in tights. Negligible talent. Probably looks good for CamSham now Don’t Menshun it has flown the nest.

    • Sarah

      Anything to say about her than her appearance and supposed (predatory) sexual habits? Oh and inferior abilities? Oh and her sameness with other famous, kind of political, women you’ve heard of?

      It comes with practice.

      • Daniel Maris

        Male politicians have their appearance commented on. Tony Banks said William Hague looked like a foetus. Heseltine was compared to Tarzan. People discussed John Major’s underwear and his sad leonine countenance. Michael Howard was compared to a vampire…

        Boris suffers sly digs about his priapic tendencies. People claimed John Major had an affair with his catering manager and he was subjected to taunts about his relationship with Edwina Currie. People here have made unsupported allegations about Cameron’s relationship with Rebecca Brooks.

        Is it really that different?

        • La Fold

          Ooffft, i havent seen a cyber spanking that bad for a while!

        • kevinlaw1222

          Brilliant reposte!

    • valedictorian16

      Vanitas much, but not on her part!

  • valedictorian16

    I can see where Elizabeth truss comes from and relate. My first political experience was with CND – a far cry from what it is now, granted.
    I asked to go to school when my sister did, so got some home schooling and a
    desk in the kitchen at age 4, one subject only – reading & writing!
    I was encouraged and helped to do homework and fun projects, when my oldersister went to secondary school: and I like reading and brushing up on
    punctuation, for love of the art and skill.
    All this was back in the day families and schools were allowed to help
    children according to needs and wants, in British schools.
    Elizabeth Truss is on to something, aside from growing up in ‘leftwing’
    family or working in a ‘rightwing’ one, she should go far with it.

  • valedictorian16

    She must be on to something, if the male commenters here are anything to go by!!!!
    Perhaps the education portfolio has been in male hands for far too long, and they don’t like it being lost to a woman, LOL.

    What’s with the blaming women only for societal ills, past present and future.
    Not one of them said, ” if she can improve the system, for my kids: more power too her!”

  • John_Page

    Not much of a hand grenade if she allows TWO press officers to monitor her – overmanning. I suppose you didn’t ask her why?

  • Troika21

    Although I agree with some of what Truss has said here, I have never seen the Conservatives accept ‘social good’ as a reason to spend money on something.

    Nor am I sure that this government is capable of doing anything about ‘social mobility’, parents incomes determine their child’s incomes. And that is a matter of money, not ‘attitude’.

  • templetont

    Wants childcare to be cheaper and those employed in it to be paid more.
    Thinks there are insufficient numbers of Singaporean mathematics books in UK education.
    Would like to be prime minister.
    Great talent. Great article.