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Too Much of Not A Lot
Winning the day and losing the war.
A reminder that Spanish versions of my essays are now available here, and some Italian versions of my essays are available here. Marco Zeloni is now also posting some Italian translations, and Italia e il Mondo recently published an interview with me, in English and Italian. Many thanks to all the translators.
In recent essays, I’ve had quite a bit to say about the disastrous decline in the capabilities of government, institutions and the private sector in the western world. Others have weighed in also, like John Michael Greer, and Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism who has not only provided a forum for discussions of the problem, but has made some important contributions herself. This essay, though, is not another diatribe or jeremiad against this undoubted galloping incompetence, but rather an attempt to understand and explain one of the most puzzling features of it: why are politicians in the West today so bad at being politicians?
Now, what do I mean by “bad”? Taking politics, for the moment, to be a purely technical activity, it seems obvious that somebody who’s going into politics should have, or plan to acquire, a number of simple and obvious skills as they would anywhere else. You would expect a carpenter to be able to saw accurately, an accountant to be at home with figures, an actor to be able to enter into the minds of different characters. So with politicians. What do we expect from them?
Well, firstly, a reasonable standard of innate intelligence and a reasonable capacity to think, write and speak coherently and understand ideas. I mean nothing grandiose by this: the level of the average intelligent school-leaver would do for a start. But then politics involves other skills as well: the ability to grasp and talk about many different subjects, to present yourself effectively in debate and in interviews, to appeal to voters to get elected, to make allies and understand how to deal with enemies, to see the subterranean currents of power, and to understand and be able to react as the direction of politics changes, among others. In power, you have to have some idea what you want to do, and at least a vague idea of how you are going to do it. In addition, politicians need a physically and mentally robust constitution to cope with the demands of the job, and to put up with endless criticism, some of it personal, without being affected by it.
None of this is terribly ambitious or demanding, yet what strikes me, having watched politics from the trenches for getting on for half a century now, is the way these very basic skills have decayed in western countries, in the last few decades. There’s a long list of potential examples, but let me just mention some obvious ones. In almost every western country, political parties no longer seem to know how to get elected. Large fractions of the electorate don’t vote, and those that do, vote reluctantly for the less repulsive of the possible options. The idea of having policies and visions that go beyond Powerpoint slides and slogans, or that are ever meant to be implemented, seems completely absent. (Emmanuel Macron has now been elected twice on a platform of not being Marine Le Pen.) Likewise, few governments in any western country now seem to have much idea of how to manage their parliaments, get laws passed or even convince public opinion and the non-PMC media. And even at an individual level, politicians now present themselves as delicate blooms, complaining bitterly about being persecuted by their opponents. So “bad” or “incompetent” are not normative criticisms here, but technical judgements, much as you would judge the work of a plumber or a lawyer.
It wasn’t always thus. Now, politicians have always been unpopular (“politician” was a term of abuse in Shakespeare’s time) and there was never a golden age when politicians were generally honest and competent and had the best interests of the nation at heart. And yet. Fifty years ago, for example, election campaigns were conducted largely through public meetings, and sometimes thousands would turn out to hear a popular figure, to cheer or to heckle. (Knowing how to deal with hecklers used to be a basic political skill.) Some politicians and their programmes were genuinely popular, and aroused actual, as opposed to fake enthusiasm. And when elected they got things done.
In 1951, Winston Churchill’s Conservative government was elected partly on the promise to build 300,000 homes per year for ordinary people. This wasn’t a focus-grouped figure, or a promise with a sly wink to be forgotten after the election. It was a promise that was basically kept, under Harold Macmillan, the Minister for Housing (imagine, a Minister for Housing!). Local Councils, often using their own direct labour forces, built two thirds of them. Today, in spite of a realisation that something needs to be done about Britain’s desperate housing shortage, the number of new homes for ordinary people constructed every year today is in the thousands. But at the time, keeping such promises was regarded as normal: this was the age of the reconstruction of the railway system, the building of the first motorways and the construction of many new universities. It was the same in Europe, where recovery from the war happened quickly, largely from indigenous resources and capabilities that had survived the fighting. And then there was modernisation. The story goes that, in the early 1960s De Gaulle and his Prime Minister Georges Pompidou were flying over Paris in a helicopter, looking down at the chaotic traffic jams that the age of the automobile had brought. “We’ve got to do something about this shambles,” De Gaulle said. Within a few years, the first high-speed Metro (RER) line was open, and the ring-road around Paris, already begun, was rapidly completed. A little later the Oil Crisis struck, and the French government decided more or less overnight to massively expand the country’s nuclear industry: the head of the (then state-owned) energy industry was called in and told to Do It. Within a few years reactors started coming on line. A little later still, the government decided to introduce the Minitel—a prototype internet— by simply giving a machine to everyone who wanted one. It was a roaring success, and enabled French people to buy train tickets on line, for example, a decade before it was possible in most other countries.
But perhaps you think this is all a bit mundane and domestic. What about the grand business of state: foreign affairs and security, for example? Were governments equally active there? Well, here is one very important example. Both Britain and France exited the Second World War with the realisation that, had it not been for their Empires, the troops, raw materials and strategic depth, things would likely have ended much worse than they did. So their first thought was to hold on to the Empires as a way of retaining Great Power status, and, in the case of Britain, some kind of equality with the United States. But it rapidly became clear that retaining the Empires was too much of a financial burden to be justified, and, after the Suez debacle, their strategic value became much more questionable. In a few years the British government did a complete about-face, and most of Britain’s possessions rapidly became independent. In little more than a decade, there was practically nothing left, and the whole strategic focus had shifted to Europe and the Atlantic. The French transition was even more rapid: on coming to power, De Gaulle not only put an end to the crippling war in Algeria, he decided that the burden of retaining the other colonies was not worth the benefits: they all became independent in a couple of years.
But it’s not just that there were Giants in Those Days, even if there were. Until a generation ago, most western leaders still displayed a reasonable degree of political competence. Just take 1991, for example. In that year, Washington was able to construct a strong international coalition for the war in Kuwait, by capable and intelligent diplomacy, and with defined political objectives. (The contrast with the amateurish shambles of Gulf War 2,0 is striking.) Later that year at the Maastricht Political Union negotiations, the British, isolated on many issues and under the indifferent leadership of John Major, nonetheless achieved many of their objectives. This was partly because Major had in front of him a briefing book with the text of every clause that had to be agreed, a commentary on British objectives, and, if necessary, a counterproposal. According to people who were there, no other national leader had this level of support, but then the British were one of the few states to have identified political objectives for the meeting, even if they didn’t achieve all of them. The contest with Brexit is almost too painful to contemplate.
In recounting these stories, there is a tendency to fasten on technical expertise, levels of education and qualification, recruitment of specialists, organisation of government and so forth, all of which are important. But whilst a country can tick over with a decent bureaucracy and a capable private sector, to actually get anywhere requires a political class which is capable of defining and pursuing goals. These goals do not have to come exclusively from the political class itself, necessarily: they may be goals widely shared by national elites, as is the case in many Asian countries. But it is essential that politicians in office adopt and pursue such goals, if the country is to move forward. Anyone who has worked in government will tell you how exasperating it is to be faced with political leaders who don’t know what they want, or can’t articulate it.
I now want to discuss briefly some of the possible explanations for this situation—analogous to not being able to find a carpenter who can saw a straight line—before going on to talk about the catastrophic influence it has had on the West’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, via a discussion of a couple of other relevant examples.
Politicians are obviously a reflection of the society they come from, and the talent pool which is available. Changes in society necessarily imply that those who go into politics will bear the imprint of these changes, and problems and weaknesses: falling education standards, for example. It’s certainly true that the frivolous and frenetic atmosphere of western popular culture today is very different from the serious world in which Macmillan or De Gaulle practiced politics. But then again, research shows that in most western countries the political class is more privileged and more ingrown than ever. Its members generally come from higher-income families, and have had long and expensive educations at prestigious institutions, as well as benefitting from powerful family and professional networks. So they are on average better educated and prepared than their forbears fifty years ago: they have no excuses. Compare that with cases such as Ernest Bevin, one of Britain’s greatest foreign secretaries, and the man who as much as anyone created NATO, was born into poverty, had scarcely any formal education and made his career in the Trades Union movement. Yet he impressed everyone, including Oxbridge diplomats, with his native intelligence and capacity for hard work, as well as his concern for his staff.
Another factor is precisely this ingrown nature of the political class. A quick survey of major political figures up to about 1990 or so displays a wide variety of backgrounds, education and life experiences. In all major western parliaments until fairly recently there were politicians who had begun life as manual workers. These days there are effectively none. The decline of mass political parties, especially on the Left, has drained the reservoir of those who came up the hard way, often through strikes and pickets and the fierce internal politics of the trades unions, and whose convictions were overwhelmingly shaped by experience. (Bevin’s profound dislike of Communism, for example, was not theoretical, but the result of his trades union experiences, and of class antagonism against the intellectuals who dominated the Communist Party in Britain: for that matter, he was not an uncomplicated admirer of the United States or the Empire either.) But politicians also came through standard middle-class careers: lawyers, teachers and lecturers, doctors, the military, small businessmen, even accountants. But their common characteristic was that they had done something before entering politics, which in any case they tended delay until early middle age. Many had also been active in local politics, where mundane everyday issues could not be avoided.
By contrast, todays political class, under the rubric of “professionalism” has in fact become steadily more amateur in its ability to do things that actually matter, in part because of a narrowness of background and experience. An aspiring politico these days will start with a degree in an abstract subject from a prestigious university (“international relations” perhaps), and go into student politics, making contacts and preparing for the future. After that, a Master’s in Human Rights Law, for example, and a couple of prestigious internships and an ever-growing address book. And after that, an entry-level job in a think-tank or a lobby group, a stint as a parliamentary assistant at home or in Brussels, a job in the party apparatus, a job in a Minister’s office, a management job in a think-tank, and then, perhaps, much earlier than before, a chance at being elected. Total experience in anything except careerism: close to zero.
But there are two other, linked, characteristics of political, systems today that have more importance in my view, even if they are less obvious. One (a consequence of this “professionalism”) is that political careers are made today almost exclusively within the apparatus of the political party of which you are a member. An obvious, if perverse, corollary, is that your enemies are in the first instance members of your own party, rather than others. The de-politicisation of politics and the narrowing of the range of acceptable political ideas which have characterised the last generation, means that genuine differences with other political parties are often minor, and may only really be important when elections are due, and when it is necessary to find some plausible-sounding argument why the electorate should not vote for another party .
But your career will not be made by trouncing the opposition in the country or in a parliamentary clash, but by attaching yourself to important people, to identifying and joining the tendency that you think will win the party’s internal debates, by carefully sticking to the party line on all occasions and by being ready to betray your friends and allies, not to say any convictions you may have retained, when it is expedient to do so. Now, politics has always been a bit like this, and most, though not all, politicians have had a careerist streak in them. But in recent years politics has increasingly become nothing but careerism. As we would expect from a Liberal society, politics is All About Me, my career, my prospects, my ego, my future after I leave politics. I might join happily in a factional struggle for control of the party, but the idea that the party itself might have interests, or that some group outside the party might have any importance, would seem utterly bizarre. It’s this more than anything else that explains why intra-party politics today is so vicious, and why politicians so often use social media to attack their own notional allies rather than their enemies.
If this vaguely reminds you of politics in a one-party state, then perhaps it should. In such a state, politics works in precisely this way: bitter internal struggles and factionalism, little interest in the opinions of outsiders, and never-ending attempts to slide a few more centimetres up the greasy pole of the party in search of more power and its associated benefits. One of the reasons for the catastrophic collapse of Bosnia in 1992, by the way, was that none of the political parties in the elections that the West forced upon the fledgling state had any actual experience of democratic politics, of the weary process of argument, debate, coalition building and convincing public opinion. The old Yugoslav Communist Party did not work that way. So on the one hand politicians in search of votes played the only card they had available—ethnicity—and on the other, when they came to constitute a parliament, had absolutely no idea how to make it work. At the time, we thought we had something to teach them. That’s not so obvious now.
And of course in a one-party state there is a nomenklatura which identifies not only those who will have political and governmental power, but those who will be powerful in the media, in think-tanks, in industry and even in the professions, and who will move easily between them. We have seen that system slowly insinuate itself in western countries as well. These days a government Minister and former management consultant might be married to a well-known political journalist, have a brother highly placed in the private sector who funds various NGOs, a sister who runs an influential think-tank and consultancy, now looking to go into politics, be best friends from Oxford with a highly-placed diplomat retiring to work for a Bank, who is married to the director of a privatised utility, whose brother is a senior official in the Bank of England … it never stops. (If you think I’m exaggerating, read some of the commentary in Naked Capitalism by contributor Colonel Smithers, and some of their reporting on the incestuous world of the equivalent nomenklatura in the US. And don’t get me started on France ….)
The final component—a reflection of the previous one—is the absolute triumph of image over substance. If you no longer care to appeal to a mass party base, if you fight parliamentary elections just by hiring consultants to vilify the opposition, if your only personal objective is to rise in the party hierarchy, then naturally image is all. What you say is more important than what you do, especially if you have internalised the idea that government can’t do much, anyway, and you are at all times seeking the good opinion of your peers, inside and outside the Party. (“Party,” as we have seen, is a slightly fluid concept.) This kind of politics really began in the 1990s, and is most closely associated with the Blair government in the UK, especially its later years. At that point, a nomenklatura had already developed, and government decisions were increasingly made in informal, unrecorded meetings, with people attending who had been elected to nothing and had no necessary professional standing. There were an increasing number of “advisers,” essentially apprentice politicians themselves, who required no personal qualities except ambition and absolute loyalty to their patron and protector. Advancement came not from competence or honesty but from knowing, in the patois of the time, “what Tony wants.” By the time of the shambles that was the government of Boris Johnson, it was actually hard to say who was influential and in charge of anything in government, assuming anyone was.
It was under Blair’s chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell, that the emphasis moved decisively away from policy to presentation. The government became obsessed with image and the control of public perception, and ensuring positive coverage in the media became an important objective in itself, if not the most important. Rather as in a one-party state, control of allowable public discourse was all that really mattered, and, for a time, the Tory opposition was in such a state of disunity that winning elections was easy anyway. The phrase that sums up this approach (whether or not Campbell coined it) was “winning the day”: the idea that at the end of every day what really mattered was that the media reflected the government’s line on any given issue. And that line might have only a coincidental relationship to reality. Official statistics, for example, were ultimately what the government claimed they were, as long as the media believed them.
I think it will already be obvious that a wholesale transformation of western political life into an amateurish, careerist, inward-looking, elitist, ego-driven and image-obsessed pastime was not going to end well. And indeed it hasn’t. So I now want to look at two cases briefly, and then Ukraine at slightly greater length, to see how it has all played out in real life
You may remember some unhappiness in France earlier this year about changes designed to make French people work longer for lower pensions. I’m not concerned here with the merits of the case (dubious, which was one of the political problems) but with the political handling, by a government without a majority, pursuing a deeply unpopular policy. Now the first reaction of any wise politician would be to say, Don’t do it. After all, official figures showed that by their early sixties, a significant fraction of French working population were already economically inactive, because they were unemployed (younger is cheaper) or disabled by work. Indeed, by the new proposed retirement age of 64, the average working class French person would be in poor health, and in many cases dead. So much for savings. Moreover, the government’s financial argument was hard to reconcile with the “whatever it takes” expenditure to fight Covid, let alone the billions sent to Ukraine.
So anyone with an ounce of political sensitivity would have said to Macron, if you won’t withdraw this silly initiative, make it more presentable. For example, a blanket retiring age of 64 meant that the labourer who left school at 16 would work perhaps ten years longer than the journalist or banker who’d be in education until their mid-20s. Why not use a system of points instead, so that when you have worked a certain amount of time you can automatically retire? Moreover, that idea is found elsewhere in the French system. But no, it was my way or the autoroute.
Which is to say that what was really at issue here was Macron’s ego, and his desire to visibly impose himself on these recalcitrant French, and win the day. The subject, in the end, was unimportant: what mattered was the optics of the heroic victory over the French people. It helped that this was a subject he could actually understand, and which (unlike Covid or Ukraine) was within his power to influence. Yet if Macron eventually had the law rammed through in a constitutional procedure designed to deal with rare emergencies, he alienated even more of the electorate from the political system, and his party will probably suffer massive damage in the run of elections up to 2027. And for what? any experienced old-school politico would have asked.
A lot has been written about Brexit, but, abstract arguments aside, I want to focus here on what I actually think is the key issue: simple incompetence. A Prime Minister with a small majority, David Cameron’s exclusive focus, like the Chairman of any Politburo, was his own survival and his position in the Party. A small but noisy anti-Brussels faction was creating trouble, so why not throw them the bone of a referendum which the government knew it would win? That would solve the problem. (Actually, it wouldn’t, since these people were True Believers who would never give up: the first piece of incompetent political judgement.) Unlike Jim Callaghan’s careful management of the 1975 European referendum, Cameron made no real attempt to set out and implement a strategy, and no attempt to contact European governments and reassure them about what was going on. Arrogance and incompetence prevented the government from running a credible Remain campaign, they just tried to frighten and coerce the population into voting for it: the typical behaviour of a government which no longer knows how to win elections except by insults. The result was the greatest avoidable political disaster of modern times, although what followed was worse. Cameron, true to the ego-driven, inwardly-focused spirit of contemporary politics, did not hesitate when the results came out: he ran away, and is now apparently making a fortune advising others. Poor old satire has been having a rough time recently.
Theresa May inherited a desperate situation but not an impossible one. Any traditional politician would have known what to do, after all. Careful evaluation of the situation, all-party talks, legal points to sort out, discussions with European partners, debates in parliament … years could have gone by and brought a change of government or an increased majority. And even if, in the end, Brexit was unstoppable, a competent government would have prepared properly. It’s a basic principle of negotiation that you never start talks without clear objectives, without a good idea of what the other side wants, and without some sense of what you are prepared to trade for what. But Brexit was the first serious example of the new style of western politics at work. All that mattered to May was her position in the Party (she was originally against Brexit) and preserving that position by exiting the EU as rapidly as possible, even though no preparation had been done, and the government had no objectives beyond leaving. Her focus was entirely internal and domestic: keeping the media on side, winning the day, keeping the Party together, and making any promise or compromise that was needed to keep her position. After the disastrous failure of a General Election called specifically to strengthen her position in the Party, she found herself hostage to a bunch of Irish Protestant fundamentalists, to whom she paid much more attention than her negotiating “partners” in Brussels. By contrast, little seems to have been done to actually define a strategy, and the British lurched from crisis to crisis, outplayed at every stage by a Commission which had a clear mandate and stuck to it. When Johnson took over, the triumph of new-style politics was complete: nothing mattered except winning the day. It didn’t matter how many lies were told, how many problems were hidden, how much fantasy was put about: real life took a back seat, and the problems stored up for later could be managed, well, later. The once-mighty British system was a shadow of its former self by then, but even the best system is helpless when politicians are obsessed with internal and media issues and ask themselves not what do we want? but what will it look like?
As will be obvious now, I think, Ukraine is simply the epitome of this, on a much larger scale. Western “policy” is run by a nomenklatura which is now international, which gazes inwardly upon itself with pride and approval, yet is as limited in its individual freedom of expression and action as was the Central Committee of the Rumanian Communist Party. National leaders are not preoccupied with the crisis as such, which they scarcely understand, but with the management of their image within their own country and their own political party, not to mention in comparison with their international colleagues. No-one can afford to look less determined, less committed to Ukraine, less anti-Russian than their neighbour or their political opponent. Like the Stasi of old, today’s media and social media scrutinise every statement, and even every silence, about every issue for signs of ideological deviation. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the nomenklatura spends so much time negotiating with itself about what it might accept as an outcome to the crisis: what matters is not what the Russians will accept, but what is acceptable to the media, to one’s political party and to one’s international colleagues, and in the last analysis to one’s ego. Meeting each other and speaking to each other incessantly, assuring each other continually that the war is nearly won and Putin is about to fall, there isn’t the time or the inclination to try to discover what the Russians actually think. Why should that matter, after all?
In addition, these national leaders are generally unpopular with their electorates, or have recently come to power by default, by replacing leaders who were. They have little idea how to manage public opinion except by threats and bluster, which accounts, perhaps for their extreme sensitivity to criticism, or even independent thought. Adept at manoeuvring within their party and used to a fawning media on all important issues, they cannot cope with the need to convince others by evidence and rational argument, since they have never had to learn that skill. They resort to threatening non-western nations because they no longer have the skills to persuade them, and indeed for the most part they no longer really know what they are doing or why, except that it is the same as everyone else. They have no strategic vision or even rational medium-term objectives, just a series of symbolic totems: they are like a bunch of pilgrims heading blindly towards a fabled destination, holding hands, hoping for a miracle.
These people lost contact with reality years ago. All that matters is to produce a vivid piece of information, true or otherwise, that will dominate the media coverage today. If tomorrow’s story contradicts today’s, it doesn’t matter: people will have forgotten by then. You may recall the ludicrous stories a couple of months ago about Russian soldiers using shovels in combat? That was fun for a day or so, but of course it was never meant to be taken seriously, still less returned to for verification. It served its purpose of winning the day, after which it could be discarded like a used fast-food wrapper. The indictment of Vladimir Putin by the ICC made a propaganda splash, which was all it was required to do. Stories of advances and retreats, Russian casualties suffered and equipment destroyed are not intended to be taken literally: they are simply aids to winning that day’s propaganda war. (And that war is not with the Russians, which might at least be comprehensible, but with western public opinion.) This school of politics lives by a form of magic: things announced will automatically happen, without anything actually needing to be done. After all, this tax cut will produce X thousand new jobs, Y thousand doctors will be recruited over mumble mumble years, so what’s wrong with saying that country Z will supply Ukraine with all the equipment it needs forever? After all, nobody takes these kinds of promises seriously do they? Do they?
And this leads us to the slow, agonising beginning of the realisation that some form of political settlement will eventually be necessary, and to the surreal amateurish and completely internally-focused way in which that is being discussed now. It’s hard to escape the notion that Brexit might actually be quite a good indicator of the confusion, ignorance, arrogance and disunity with which the West might try to tackle the end of the Ukraine crisis. But that’s an essay in itself and will have to wait for next week. In the meantime, the epitaph of this school of politics may well prove to be, that it doesn’t matter how often you win the day, if you wind up losing the war.
The gratifying increase in the number of subscribers (crawling towards 4500 now) means that people are reading and commenting on my older essays, and in some cases asking for my replies. I will get round to this as soon as I can.
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