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The recession and the Politics of Fumbling

The consistent incompetence of politicians is no accident: it is testament to their lack of a cohering ideology.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics UK

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The sheer lack of professionalism of our leaders is well beyond a ribald joke; it is now becoming a big problem for society.

In the recession so far, popular outrage against the establishment has focused mainly on ‘greed’. Yet alongside impulsive disgust about avarice lies another sentiment: anger towards politicians’ manifest incompetence. Much of the criticism of ministers through the familiar metaphor of piss-ups, breweries and organisation skills stems from weariness and cynicism more than a desire for a new society. However, there are questions that need to be answered about the elite’s incompetence.

The main thing to grasp is that, both in Britain and abroad, incompetence rests upon a profound lack of political direction. If there existed party-political goals more tangible and more exciting than ‘values’, ‘fairness’ and ‘tolerance’, society would throw up people who had the imagination and the competence to see those goals reached.

In turn, directionlessness is also something that cannot come down to the character or intellectual defects of, say, UK government minister Harriet Harman. Since the end of the Cold War, the sense of purpose that typified politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has been evacuated from political circles. The only enemy that elites have nowadays is themselves.

It is hard to gain traction against such an adversary. For example, it is rumoured that UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s recent speech to the US Congress went through no fewer than 40 drafts – including amendments by Tony Blair – before it was delivered. Yet it was still utterly leaden.

Alongside the speechifying blather, there is increasingly stonewalling throughout interviews, and butterfingered responses to every new economic curveball: these things speak of a deficit not just of particular ideas, but also of any well-defined system of ideas. Today’s leaders want for ideology and worldview. With that gaping hole at their heart, it’s no wonder there’s a gaping hole in their performance during the current economic crisis.

The scale of the problem

Gordon Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron now look so incapable that a politician as boring and inconsequential as Vincent Cable, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, is lionised as a safe pair of hands.

At the UK Financial Services Authority, authority is in tatters. Forecasts by the Bank of England and by the Treasury are made at the start of a week, only to be revised downward by the end of it. Cuts in interest rates have done nothing except to lower Sterling and, in the holiday business, buttress Butlin’s. Banks still refuse to lend. And when people suspect that spending more of Britain’s money now might be simply to repeat the recent past and store up inflation for the future, they aren’t wrong.

Notoriously, Tony Blair used to talk about his desire for ‘eye-catching initiatives’. But Brown’s frenetic series of measures has proved rather more eyewatering than eye-catching, so much so, in fact, that ministers have told him to slow down so that they can catch up. Events are not shaped; they are just reacted to. Worse, though initial reactions are rapid, their ability actually to deliver upon proposals – one important mark of competence – is frequently found wanting. For instance, following the government’s New Year promise of £20billion worth of aid to small firms, they have so far doled out just £12million. A ‘policy scheme’ to help homeowners in arrears with their mortgages was announced in December; but, perhaps because its provisions run to no fewer than 30 bullet points, it won’t deliver any cash to anyone until April (3).

Leaving aside the obvious travails of finance and manufacturing, Labour’s hopes of building a meagre two million homes by 2016 are now a distant memory. Since the dynamo known as Margaret Beckett took over as minister for housing in October, the number of houses built has fallen to little more than 5,000 per month (4).

Education, like healthcare, is also overwhelmed by initiatives. Today, to adapt Karl Marx, the educationalist must himself be educated (5). In primary schools, books are ‘reading schemes’, and separate subjects face sidelining at the hands of cross-curricular muddles such as ‘wellbeing’ (6). In much of secondary-school geography, too, indoctrination in global warming has supplanted proper lessons (7).

Transport infrastructure is so weak that even government officials have noticed. While mountainous Japan introduced the 130mph Tōkaidō Shinkansen bullet train back in 1964, Labour transport broker Lord Andrew Adonis has only just discovered that there is a ‘strong case’ for something similar in Britain – though building new, high-speed North-South track, he admits, will take 15 years (8).

In nuclear energy, there were plans, last January, for new reactors to start generating power in 2018 (9). Now, however, the shiny new Department of Energy and Climate Change discusses deployment ‘by 2025’ (10).

In IT, eight of the biggest government contracts are running a total of £18.6billion above cost estimates supplied to MPs (11). Still, Lord Stephen Carter, Britain’s first ever minister for communications, technology and broadcasting, has published an interim report, Digital Britain, which recommends the following as the first ‘specific action’ that New Labour should undertake: ‘We will establish a government-led strategy group to assess the necessary demand-side, supply-side and regulatory measures to underpin existing market-led investment plans, and to remove barriers to the timely rollout, beyond those declared plans, to maximise market-led coverage of Next Generation broadband.’ (12)

If the prose is anything to go by, Carter’s plans to make broadband coverage universal in Britain by 2012, like the government’s programme to switch over every household in the country from analogue TV to the digital sort by the same year, will wind up as just so much spaghetti.

The origins of the New Fumbling

It’s true that long years in power have sapped the energy of New Labour. But the absence of ideology is a more important factor.

The inability of Britain’s political parties to offer practical solutions is remarkable in one immediate respect. If you recall, Labour’s successful election manifesto of 1997 explained, right up front, that ‘What counts is what works’. And recall, too, that in March 2008, in a speech on the regulation of financial markets, Barack Obama made a very similar appeal for Americans to dispense with ‘old ideological battles’ and instead ‘seek pragmatic solutions’. The first paradox of the New Fumbling, then, is that it has occurred after more than a decade of party-political agreement that practical success, not a body of thinking, is all that matters.

Francis Fukayama published his seminal article ‘The end of history?’ in The National Interest in 1989, the year in which the Cold War ended. Since that time, many have rightly castigated Fukayama for his triumphalist suggestion that liberal democracy was the final form of human government, and that ideology was forever off the agenda in human affairs. Indeed, Fukayama himself has somewhat rowed back from his original thesis (13). However, in criticising Fukayama, it’s important not to be glib. As Blair and Obama attest, neutral, ideology-free managerialism is indeed a feature of our political times.

What ought to have been learnt, however, is that freedom from ideology means a freedom not just from captivating visions but also from coherence. What is so striking about elites today isn’t just their dishonesty, which isn’t new, but their impotence. In this, Gordon Brown personifies the bitter fruits of pragmatism.

Lacking any overarching vision, the elite today can only proffer ideas so trite that they are embarrassing:

  • markets are prone to market failure
  • financial trickery and global warming are a Bad Thing – Something Must be Done
  • some more regulation of some kind or other is necessary
  • risks are growing, but risk aversion is also a Bad Thing – Something Must be Done
  • we won’t win in Afghanistan or northern Pakistan, but we can’t afford to lose, either.

Such an inchoate set of guiding principles, so coloured by sensitivity to risk, is guaranteed to lead to endless cock-ups on the ground. But something else leads to cock-ups, too: the lurch, by politicians, to outsource practical decisions to a growing web of expert, apolitical technocrats, regulators, and panels. If you’re that bothered by risk, why take it on yourself? It’s well known that US president Harry Truman had a sign on his White House desk proclaiming ‘The buck stops here’. Well, today, the buck continues on somewhere else.

The diffusion of decision-making, in turn, doesn’t just amount to a widespread shrugging off of responsibility, bad though that is. It also leads to indecisiveness in a crisis, and a failure to execute plans. Not for nothing did the 2002 management primer Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done raise hopes among America’s bosses that they had found a magic compass pointing the way forward (14).

Those hopes have been dashed, and not just in the US. In 2008, the main object of the book’s adulation, the American IT company EDS, hit another in a series of screw-ups in the UK. Referring to its offices in Hampshire, EDS admitted that it was ‘unable to account’ for one of its hard drives. And on that hard drive were details of perhaps 100,000 Armed Forces personnel, plus another 600,000 potential recruits. (15)

Politicians, man and boy

Such is the incompetence of government and its suppliers in the UK that the authorities in our supposed surveillance society are more likely to lose information than use it. But what would ministers know about something like Information Technology? The academic backgrounds of the 23 members of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet do not inspire confidence.

Many have remarked how Cabinet members have backgrounds in student politics (Jack Straw, Jim Murphy), political think-tanks (David Miliband), and television (Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Shaun Woodward). But while a university degree isn’t everything – especially nowadays – it’s less often noticed that only a single Cabinet member has one in chemistry. None appears to have graduated in computer science, physics, engineering, mathematics, medicine or biology. Just two have specialised in foreign languages; no fewer than five have qualifications in law. None appears to have trained in banking or management. Politics, philosophy and, yes, economics, mugged up at Oxford, are preferred instead.

Three members of Brown’s Cabinet have experience working for charities (Woodward, John Denham, Harriet Harman), or have done a stint with the Democratic Party in the US (Yvette Cooper, Douglas Alexander). But none seems able to claim experience in business. They are more expert in issuing legal decrees than in seeing things through.

The blancmange of modern politics reflects the deindustrialisation of Britain, the accompanying decline of science and technology, and the just-as-relentless rise of regulation, litigation, the public sector and the media. The blancmange is a symptom of the atrophy in the realm of wealth production that has crept up on Britain and the West since the late 1960s and early 1970s. But there is another feature of the UK Cabinet that is noticeable: most of its members, if not all, went into politics very early in life, and stayed.

In the old days, a politician built something of a normal career before embarking on one in parliament. Some learned firsthand about finishing experiments in laboratories, curing patients, or running a company overseas. This is no longer the case. But should we therefore now yearn for politicians who, in earlier days, were up to their neck directing rapacious multinationals? No we shouldn’t. But we would take such people more seriously than ageing hacks from the National Union of Students or London Weekend Television.

Today Britain’s political leaders are useless because they lack an ideology. Despite their claims to pragmatism, they lack worldliness. They love numerical targets, but are unable to add up. They are legislators and orators, but rarely rise above the hasty Commons motion and the evasive TV answer: like Brown when put under pressure, they tend just to repeat themselves.

New Labour are outsourcers, outsourcing to suits who live in the steel-and-glass houses of Ofgem, Ofwat and Ofcom. But they are not organisers. These professional politicians have been so immersed in politics for so long, they are unprofessional.

To make a new society, Britain will have to do better. We need leaders who, in the first place, can offer great ideas and inspire millions with internationalist principles. Urbanity, science, technology and organisation can come a little later – though not much later. At the same time, the importance of a binding, rational and coherent ideology cannot be underestimated. For the moment, competence in British leaders, long weak, is at an extraordinarily low ebb. But once we understand how such a situation has come about, dark years will assuredly give way to bright ones.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that today’s politicians couldn’t organise a credit spree in a bank. He also looked at the privatisation of politics. Frank Furedi argued that history has not yet begun. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Homeowners Mortgage Support Scheme – Policy scheme description, Communities and local government

(2) The figures are seasonally adjusted, and cover October-December 2008. Housing – Statistical Release, Communities and local government, February 2009

(3) In the third of his Theses On Feuerbach, 1845, Marx wrote: ‘The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated’.

(4) p36, The Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum

(5) See for example Keep ‘global issues’ out of the classroom, by Alex Standish, 18 December 2008

(6) Rail revolution marks return of the grand project, Financial Times, 3 January 2009

(7) p36, Meeting the energy challenge, BERR, January 2008

(8) Sellafield site in the running for next generation nuclear, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 23 January 2009

(9) £18 billion scandal as Whitehall’s IT plans spin out of control, The Times, 2 February 2009

(10) p7, Digital Britain – The Interim Report, January 2009

(11) See Our Posthuman Future: The Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, 2000

(12) Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan and Charles Burck, Crown Business, 2002.

(13) MoD computer hard drive missing , BBC News, 10 October 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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