Profile - Celebrity historian and lecturer takes on toughest gig yet

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Rough and tumble of political front line awaits Tristram Hunt

He is perhaps more instantly recognisable in British households as a television historian who covers subjects as diverse as the English Civil War and the theories of Sir Isaac Newton.

But this week, Tristram Hunt's political profile received a major boost when he was named as Labour's shadow education secretary in the party's shadow Cabinet reshuffle. He replaces Stephen Twigg, who was in the role for two years.

The appointment marks a rapid rise up the political ladder for the 39- year-old, who entered Westminster in 2010 after becoming MP for Stoke-on- Trent Central at the last general election.

A white, privately educated Cambridge graduate, Mr Hunt hardly breaks the mould for a front-line politician. In fact, as the son of a peer, his background is even more elite than most.

But with an established profile as a broadcaster and author, his party is surely hoping that he will be able to attract some of the media spotlight currently monopolised by his opposite number, Michael Gove. Mr Hunt is the fourth Labour education spokesperson to face Mr Gove in just three and a half years.

Mr Hunt was educated at the prestigious pound;17,160-a-year University College School in Hampstead, a wealthy area of North London, and continued his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he secured a first in history - the subject through which he would make his name.

He has gone on record with his support for Mr Gove's English Baccalaureate performance measure, which places greater emphasis on traditional academic subjects, including history. He did, however, criticise the coalition's proposed reforms of the national curriculum, claiming they were "too prescriptive".

Having studied history, Latin and English literature at A level, he may struggle to convince some people of his affinity with vocational education, in line with his party's theme of focusing on the "forgotten 50 per cent" who do not attend university.

Despite a relatively short career to date as an MP, Mr Hunt has spent many years working in Whitehall - first in the Labour Party headquarters on Tony Blair's 1997 election campaign, then, between 1997 and 2000, as special adviser to Lord Sainsbury, who was science minister at the time.

By 2001, he had left Whitehall to take up a teaching role as a lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London. He combined teaching with presenting radio and TV programmes for the BBC and Channel 4, and reportedly received a six-figure advance for his most recent book, the award-winning The Frock-Coated Communist: the revolutionary life of Friedrich Engels.

In his brief time at Westminster, Mr Hunt has already won admirers from across the political spectrum. The right-leaning Spectator magazine not only described him recently as having the "easy charm, quick wits and good looks you would expect of a TV historian", but also tipped him to go far on account of his ability to speak to Middle England.

While Mr Hunt's academic and intellectual prowess are in no doubt, he will now have to show whether he can turn his hand to the grubbier rough and tumble of front-line politics.

Despite his own highly traditional education, he has defended teachers under attack for using more alternative methods. Showing a seasoned politician's ear for a soundbite, he hit back at Mr Gove after the education secretary mocked a teacher whose lessons on Nazi Germany incorporated Mr Men characters. "Before he rushes to judgement about young people, Michael Gove should make sure he has researched the evidence thoroughly," he said. "Otherwise he risks coming across as Mr Sloppy."

He may also have won support among teachers by taking classes at further education and sixth-form colleges, although this did provide ammunition to his political rivals. Having criticised the government for allowing unqualified teachers into the classroom, it turned out that Mr Hunt himself lacked that particular piece of paper among his academic credentials.

Times past


Tristram Hunt has presented and appeared on a number of radio and television programmes for the BBC and Channel 4, including Great Britons in 2002, The Joy of Motoring in 2009 and In Our Time in 2012.


He is the author of several books, including Building Jerusalem: the rise and fall of the Victorian City (2004) and the award-winning biography The Frock-coated Communist: the revolutionary life of Friedrich Engels (2009).

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