I Don't Want this Sunak: Don't You Have a Better Model?
Politics is ultimately about personal qualities.
People often talk about the current political crisis in the West in antiseptic and impersonal terms: the end of the Tory Party, the decline of neoliberalism, the strengthening of the extreme Right, and so on. But ideologies, parties and tendencies don’t have agency: people have agency. So let’s look at the current chaos, in Britain and elsewhere, from the much more practical perspective of individual people operating within systems, and try to see what’s gone wrong.
As an example, we’ll start with Britain, whose political system seems to be moving from tragedy to farce to whatever it is that comes after farce. What’s striking, though, is the very impersonal way in which the problem is discussed. We’re told that the Tory party is “disintegrating," that the “extreme free-market ideas” of Truss and co have been rejected, that Brexit “killed” the Party, and that there are “insuperable ideological differences” among MPs. But somehow, people are absent from these recitals. Saying that Brexit sunk the Tory Party is like saying that an iceberg sunk the Titanic, and about as useful. In reality, the story is of a series of personal failures of character, intelligence, leadership and political management, of a type and extent that any electorate has a right to assume their politicians know how to avoid. Likewise, it isn’t “immigration” that has “disrupted” the political system in Sweden. It isn’t “inflation” or “higher energy prices” that are threatening to topple governments all over Europe. Individual people took decisions. Bad ones.
Now of course all governments are constrained by what they can actually do, and choices are never as straightforward as they might like. It’s often unfair to criticise individuals as though they had more agency than perhaps they did; and simply seeking to apportion blame and do nothing else is pointless. But the other extreme is equally false: governments are not the helpless playthings of social and historical forces, nor do “governments” or “systems” or “parties” take decisions. So an actual group of Swedish politicians decided it would be a wonderful thing to have much more immigration than in the past, without taking the trouble to think through the likely consequences, or perhaps just without caring about them.
Let’s go back to Brexit for a moment, where I think it’s much more useful to write the history of the last ten years as a series of personal failures, by individuals who, remember, were so convinced of their own abilities that they put themselves forward to be leaders of a major country. Tory MPs have always been divided about Europe, and Cameron when Prime Minister believed that he could overcome this division by holding a referendum on the subject. In itself this was not necessarily a mistake, but it was a dangerous tactic because it held the political and economic future of the country hostage to internal struggles within one political party. But so confident was Cameron of winning, that he didn’t even make the referendum a consultative one. After all, Remain would win easily. Nor was it necessary to campaign very much, since victory was assured. Mocking and denigrating your opponents, circulating scare-stories and prophesying apocalypse were the right tactics. It wasn’t worth putting out any positive publicity about the virtues of the EU. All of these were individual bad decisions, on the basis of free choices, made by Cameron and others, when they could have made better ones.
Even after the result, a competent government would have said that, well, the result was close, consultations are needed, of course the result will be respected but we need to work out how and at what speed Brexit will take place. Consultations could have taken years, together with all-party discussions on negotiating objectives. Yes, the Brexiters would have screamed, but they would have been worn down, and the heat would have been taken out of the issue. At the same time, the government would have commissioned a lot of internal work on negotiating objectives, produced a White Paper for discussion, and heaven knows what else. All of these would have been sensible manoeuvres which would have dispelled the air of crisis, and manoeuvres which, for that matter, would have occurred instinctively to any political hack in a position of power in any European country in the generation or so that followed the Second World War. The fact that these things were not done, that May instead opted to start negotiations immediately, with no consensus even within government, and no negotiating position, was an unforced error and an example of colossal personal incompetence by May and her supporters, terrified that Brexiters in the party would eat them.
As for the horrible, shambolic, conduct of the negotiations, it’s hard to believe that a more arrogant, ignorant and self-delusional negotiating position has ever been adopted by any major government. The only thing that was really taken into account was the internal politics of the Tory Party. May’s robotic demeanour and refusal to accept reality are what you’d expect from someone who was hopelessly out of her depth both politically and intellectually, and probably would have found being a local councillor challenging enough. And then Johnson, one of the few modern politicians to use the lie deliberately as a political tactic, decided that in order to get Brexit “done,” he would pretend that the Northern Ireland problem had been solved, when it hadn’t. None of this was inevitable: it was a series of incompetent decisions by arrogant and dishonest people.
Am I being unfair? I don’t think so. But bear in mind one thing: all of these people and their “advisers” were there because they wanted to be. They fancied their own abilities enough to thrust themselves forward for positions of real power at a time of crisis, and to tell people to trust them. So they deserve to be held to a very high standard of personal competence, honesty and intelligence: this isn’t a widget factory or a hedge-fund we’re talking about here. And now we have Covid, Ukraine und so weiter, and God alone knows what’s coming down the pipe next. And in charge are a bunch of political pygmies, obsessed with their own careers and the internal battles in the Tory Party.
If it were just Britain, if it were just Brexit, if it were just the Tory Party, then you could argue that the whole ghastly episode was untypical and all will be well in the politics of the western world. Yet the West as a whole faces a fundamental problem that no institutional Lego manipulation can cure: the quality of western politicians, intellectually, morally and politically, is lower than it has been at any time in modern history. Oh, history is full of politicians who have not been very bright, and politicians who have been morally dubious. But the dumb were generally kept at the appropriate level, and overt corruption was frowned upon. In general, though, even the worst actually understand something about, you know, politics. As it is, we’re stuck with the equivalent of people who have elbowed their way into the finals of a talent competition through personal contacts, but can’t actually sing.
This is important, because in the end it’s people in systems who make systems work. Good systems can, and do, bring on mediocre people, but through the activities of their members, not through some kind of magic. If you’ve worked in large organisations, you know that good people can make even poor systems work better, but bad people will eventually bring even the best system down. Thus, the level of intelligence, expertise and morality in politics cannot be higher than the total capacities of those who are politicians, or want to be. As Donald Rumsfeld might have remarked about people like himself, you staff a government with the people you have, not the people you would like to have.
And this is the fundamental problem. Although it’s less obvious in countries like France and the US, which have directly elected Presidents, the fact is that the population from within which willing candidates for top political jobs come is not large, and their overall quality is poorer than it’s ever been. That, in turn, is because the source populations in question have themselves never been intellectually or morally weaker. But that’s a different subject, for another time. Let’s use the same triptych of What, How and When that I used last week in an attempt to understand the origins and possible consequences of the problem.
The What goes back to the familiar story of the sociological changes in the political class over the last generation or so. The broad picture is familiar, but it’s instructive to look at some examples in more detail. For example, political parties a hundred years ago existed to defend and advance the causes of their voters. (That sounds strange today, I know.) So in Britain, the Labour Party (previously known as the Labour Representation Committee) existed to further the interests of the “labouring” (ie working) class, and its middle-class Socialist supporters. So some of those people stood for Parliament, and were elected. Keir Hardie, whom I have mentioned before, was a former miner and trades unionist, who began work in the mines at nine years old, and became the first leader of the Labour Party in Parliament. Clement Attlee, Labour’s greatest post-1945 leader, was born into a moneyed family but was converted to Socialism by the poverty he saw around him. He trained as a lawyer, fought in the First World War at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, was a university lecturer and the Mayor of one of the poorest boroughs of London, before becoming an MP. Likewise, the Conservative Party existed to defend the interests of the Establishment, and its backbone was small businessmen, local dignitaries, professionals such as lawyers and accountants, and landowners. So some of these people also stood for Parliament and were elected.
It’s not just an Anglo-Saxon thing, either. Friedrich Ebert, the great German Socialist Chancellor of the interwar years was born in poverty, and was a saddle-maker and a pub owner before becoming a trades union organiser, and then an MP. Gustav Streseman, his right-wing equivalent, came from a lower middle-class family, and was a journalist, a businessman and a local politician before going into national politics. You get the picture, I think. Until quite recently, it was normal for politicians to represent a part of society, by birth or adoption, and to defend its interests. Nearly always, they had done something outside politics of a practical nature, partly because, in those days, there were many more practical things to do.
An entire generation of politicians after 1945 had served in, or been through, the Second World war. Denis Healey, for example, the combative Labour Defence Secretary in the 1960s, was fond of witheringly reminding his Conservative critics that he hadn’t seen many of them on the beach at Anzio in 1943. In France, and especially in Paris, you will see little memorial plaques showing where famous politicians lived, often with a lapidary inscription summarising their lives in a few words. A typical one is Resistant, Déporté, Ministre, which tells a whole life-story: a member of the Resistance, arrested, probably tortured, and sent to Buchenwald, the SS camp for resistance fighters, survived, came back to France and went into politics to reconstruct the country. Examples could be multiplied almost endlessly, but that’ll do for now.
What were these changes I mentioned, then? Well, the first is certainly the massive increase in the provision of higher education. Here, I mean less the reforms of the 60s and 70s, which in most western countries allowed ordinary people like me to go to university for the first time, but rather the massive and cynical expansion of credentialism since the 90s, hustling children of average ability into university courses they will be paying for forever, with the threat that if they don’t go, they won’t get a job. This has created a massive, sort-of educated class which, ironically, has neither the practical skills nor the laboriously and often personally obtained general education of their parents’ generation. It has no class, regional or professional base on which an identity could be built, and no real ideology other than a kind of vague progressivism picked up at university. Next, the decline, or even abolition, of higher vocational education in many countries has helped to wipe out entire layers of society from which politicians of different tendencies used to come, often beginning in local politics. Then, neoliberalism has destroyed communities and dispersed families. No longer do you grow up in a community, and think after a while that you might like to serve it in some capacity. You may be living hundreds of miles from where you were born, working largely remotely, living in accommodation you can scarcely afford, and utterly isolated from the community in which you notionally live. You are hardly going to think of serving the community, by becoming a local councillor or a volunteer, as the best way to spend the little free time that you do have.
Which brings us to the How. For these and many other reasons, the typical parliamentarian in many countries is now a relatively young and inexperienced figure, parachuted in from outside, who has no particular contact with any community or area, no interests or experience outside politics, and no personal qualities except ambition. They do not, and cannot, claim to represent the community, although some formal deference may be paid to local issues and personalities. The basis of their power is not local, but in the national or regional organisation of the political party they want to represent. Inevitably, they are faithful exponents of whatever their party’s ideology may be for the time being.
It’s worth pointing out that in countries which have managed to retain at least some local and regional structures, this problem is less acute. In France, for example, it was long possible for a member of parliament to also be the mayor of a town, or a local or regional councillor. Although this gave rise to problems, it did ensure that national politicians had at least some awareness of local issues and met ordinary people all the time. This practice has largely been stopped now, and is really part of the increasing concentration of power in France at higher levels: it’s not a coincidence that Macron, elected for the first time as President in 2017, has no local affiliations and was never elected to any position of power before.
But perhaps this doesn’t matter, a Liberal might argue. After all, politics is a technical activity, and you want the brightest and the best people to do it. It makes sense, doesn’t it, to take the cleverest people, who’ve studied at elite schools and universities, with degrees in law and political science, with MBAs and experience in NGOs, think tanks, political research or management consultancy, and let them run the country? Well, look at the shambles that surrounds us now, and answer the question yourself. Isn’t it better, perhaps, to have people with actual experience of life, with some local affiliation, with some vague idea about what their actions might mean for ordinary people?
There is, of course, a long tradition of the theory and practice of government by experience and qualified elites, but that’s different. “Governing” was long regarded as a profession, at which some people were better than others. But Plato’s Guardians, remember, lived only for their duties, without private property or luxury, entirely dedicated to the state, and only allowed to rule after decades of rigorously ascetic training. In Confucian thinking, government existed only for the benefit of the people. By contrast, Liberalism sees government as a remunerated activity, something like dentistry or accountancy. And why should it matter to you if your dentist is from Nigeria or Latvia, provided they are competent? But aren’t we perhaps forgetting something?
When the sage Lao-Tzu was asked by a Chinese King how he should govern his country, he is said to have replied that the King should first learn to govern himself, and then the rest would follow. It is hard to overestimate how far we have come from the idea that the key to a good state and a good society is to have good people in positions of power. And by “good," I do mean people who are not only intelligent and capable, but morally acceptable as well.
Does that sound utopian? Possibly, and no-one expects all politicians to be angels. But a democracy has a right to expect, I suggest, that those who put themselves forward for positions of power should have some sort of basic moral compass, and not be simply interested in wealth and power. Recall Charles de Gaulle who, on leaving office in 1969 wrote a cheque for his personal use of Elysée facilities, including postage stamps. Recall Lord Peter Carrington, who resigned as Foreign Secretary after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in 1982, although by no stretch of the imagination was it his fault. It’s not that these incidents were exceptional: far from it, they were expected behaviours in the political systems of the time.
What we expect now are the moral norms of a Liberal society. Every individual should have the freedom to do what they want, constrained only by the (minimum number of) laws. Whatever can be justified by reference to laws or rules is acceptable, no matter how strained the interpretation may be. Corruption is to be expected in a liberal society, since it is a rational response to being provided with suitable opportunities. It is fought through institutional procedures: oversight, inspection and whistle blowing, which are ineffective, but at least keep other members of the Professional and Managerial Class, notably lawyers and journalists, in employment. “Governance” is no longer about governance of the self; about integrity, character, wisdom and far-sightedness. These days, “governance” just means reorganisation of structures and procedures, just as “integrity” is to be built through lecturing and frightening people, since a liberal society can provide no coherent arguments in its favour. .
If aspirant politicians no longer come from a defined community, no longer represent defined interests, no longer have local ties and loyalties, no longer have previous experience to draw upon and no longer have to appeal to an electorate which expects a modicum of intelligence, capability and character; and if besides all that they are driven exclusively by personal ambition, then you get something like the present mess in Britain. The Tory Party, famous for its disciplined pursuit of power and its lack of interest in ideology, has, since the 1980s, increasingly been neoliberalised into feuding groups divided less by ideology than by gut instinct and personal ambition, ready to compromise any idea and abandon any ally for a sniff at power. I have argued for a long time that Mrs Thatcher effectively destroyed the Tory Party during her reign, but I didn’t expect that destruction to be as awe-inspiring in its scope as it has actually turned out to be.
But it’s not just in Britain and it’s not just on the Right. The great parties of the Left, like the French Socialists and the British Labour party, were riven by personal animosities and factionalism, but they did have an overarching shared set of ideas and objectives. These days, the sort-of electoral coalition of the sort-of-Left put together by Mélenchon in June, and which could be the de facto Opposition in France, mostly spends its time sneering at each other and scoring points on Twitter: it’s more important to impress one’s militants, and put one’s colleagues down, than to impress the electorate. (“What is this ‘electorate’ of which you speak, white heterosexual man?”)
In a society which adopts the Liberal values of individual autonomy, of individual rather than collective good, of aggressive pursuit of financial advantage, and of legalistic interpretations of right and wrong, to the exclusion of all others it is inevitable that the current generation of politicians will reflect those qualities. It would be astonishing if they did not. Moreover, those politicians who are less aggressive, less selfish and more moral will simply be elbowed aside. And since the political process no longer selects for competent and experienced politicians, you won’t get too many of those, either. And finally, since society as a whole no longer has the power to impose better norms on the political class, it’s hard to see why things should improve.
We can snigger at the ethos of the playing-fields of Eton. We can feel smugly superior to the societies of ancient China or Imperial Prussia, with their outdated emphasis on duty and hierarchy. The Republican model which inspired generations of French politicians is quietly being dismantled. But then we have to accept that our dislike of modern politicians is by extension a distaste for the society that produced them and gave them their incentives: ours. And it is dislike of individuals which is largely behind current problems. Yes, that curious two-headed pantomime horse “liberal democracy” has serious practical and conceptual problems, all self-generated. But people are not necessarily angry at the concept itself, nor are they embracing some abstract alternative concept called “authoritarianism.” They are protesting against a ruling political class which is arrogant, incompetent, venal, self-interested, and can’t even be crooked competently. The “crisis of democracy” or whatever is a crisis in the supply of reasonably competent, reasonably honest politicians, and it won’t go away until something is done about it.
Which brings us to When. It’s always awkward to talk about When, because it’s a kind of prediction, and the husks and carcasses of failed predictions are strewn everywhere about. But it’s worth pointing out that the worst political class in modern history is having to confront an unprecedented series of crises, any one of which would have strained the capabilities of a much better class of politician. Something is going to give, and soon. Either the system will collapse, and our venal and incompetent political class will be elbowed aside, or, more probably, the people will simply disengage, ignore government and do things for themselves. They will pretend to rule and We will pretend to believe them. Neither of these possibilities is very unattractive, but I don’t see how we can avoid at least one of them.
what rough beast, its' time come at last, slouches towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born?
Oh, very well, then....
Adam Tooze has his commentary. Mine is that we have reached the "open looting of anything not nailed down" stage of British decline.