Spare Us from Serious Politicians

BY STEWART SLATER

It is time, Bruce Anderson tells readers of The Spectator, for Boris to go. We need a government, not an “ill-run children’s playground”. The time for “frivolity” has passed. No, counters Rory Stewart in the FT. It is not enough for Boris to go, the whole political system must be re-worked so that a Boris can never rise again. We need more parties in Parliament. We need City Mayors with stronger powers. We need “serious” politicians. (A cynic might wonder what it is about this particular policy platform which attracts a former Cabinet Minister, with high name recognition and a stated ambivalence about returning to the Commons who has (currently) burnt his bridges with one of the main parties and who has already had an abortive tilt at becoming Mayor of London.)

A casual glance at the denizens of the Westminster ecosystem, both politicians and their symbiotes in the media, reveals no shortage of people who believe that they are serious players, doing serious things in a serious way. Tom Tugenhadt gives every impression of believing that his previous career as a middle-ranking army officer has given him the geo-political nous a geneticist might only expect in the love-child of Metternich and Henry Kissinger. Tobias Ellwood always appears to think deeply before gravely opining that, no matter what the issue under discussion, the solution is to involve the military. I spent the weekend trying to think of a single member of the Opposition benches to whom the adjective “earnest” might not justly be ascribed. And I failed.

For if Parliament is full of those who regard themselves as serious and yet, we need, according to Stewart, more of them, the logical conclusion is that some of those who appear to be so actually are not. But how are we to weed them out? Obviously the electorate has failed. Do we need to invent some sort of filtering process, or do we need to “elect another people”? If it is the former, how do we ensure that it does not degenerate into a system whereby “People Like Us” select “People Like Us”? Can we even tell, ahead of time, who has the “right stuff” to be a “serious politician”? To paraphrase Tacitus, everyone thought Theresa May was serious. Until she became Prime Minister.

Even if we could find some method of weeding out the unserious which did not offend democratic sensibilities, would we actually want to? Fortunately, at this very moment, our American cousins are running an experiment on just what happens when the system kicks out the unworthy. Donald Trump would not have met Anderson or Stewart’s threshold for “seriousness” (nor that of any sentient human being, to be fair). But he has gone. Surely things are better now? After all, as the FT told us in the aftermath of the election, “The Grown-Ups are back in charge in Washington.”

Those Grown-Ups, however, have overseen, in their 12 months in power, more deaths from Covid than Donald Trump. Despite the widespread availability of vaccines. The peak death toll for the first wave in April 2020 was 2,752. Last Friday saw the loss of  3,866 Americans. If the evacuation of Kabul is taught in military academies, it will be as a signal lesson in what not to do (Pro-tip: Don’t abandon your heavily defended air base and its materiel until you actually leave the country). Trump responded to the Salisbury poisonings by expelling 60 Russian diplomats and closing the Seattle consulate. Biden has reacted to Russia’s build-up of forces on Ukraine’s borders by seeming to suggest that a small invasion, sorry, “incursion”, would be fine. Future economic historians may raise an eyebrow at the decision to stimulate an economy just as it enters an inflationary spiral. It is almost enough to make one long for the steady government of the “very stable genius”.

Closer to home, Emmanuel Macron is surely the Platonic ideal of the “serious” politician. He reads Hegel, for goodness sake! Last week, France recorded 500,000 Covid cases. In a single day. Twelve months ago, the President was about to start his multi-month campaign to undermine trust in the AstraZeneca vaccine whether through a bout of anglophobic pique or because, as has been reported, he “thinks he’s an epidemiologist.”

Nor has the EU, the ne plus ultra of rule by the serious, exactly shot the lights out recently. The vaccine roll-out was sluggish, punctuated by such enlightening episodes as the threatened invocation of Article 16 of the Brexit agreement to secure more supplies. The so-called “geo-political commission” can but watch as the future of one of its neighbours is decided by America and Russia, while isolated Little England flies constant convoys of weapons to the beleaguered country, taking care to avoid Germany lest over-flight rights are not granted. If anything, the EU demonstrates the importance not of getting serious people into power, but being able to get them out when they manifestly fail.

While demands for more serious people in power are most frequently and vocally made by those who would count themselves in that number, they tap into a long strand of human thinking. Plato’s ideal Republic was to be ruled by the Guardians, an elite caste chosen and educated specifically for the task.

The rise of economics and sociology led Progressive intellectuals in the 1920’s to fantasize about government by “engineers of society”, so skilled in the new sciences that they could fine-tune policies to ensure the optimum outcome for all.

Even today, Dominic Cummings has written at (great) length about his desire for the hard-work of policy-making to be undertaken by data-obsessed mathematicians and physicists. The only difference between the Brexiteer Cummings and the Remainer Stewart, is that the former wants a world run by scientists, the latter one run by people like himself. 

At their heart, these approaches share the assumption that there is some mysterious “science of government” which can, uniquely, be apprehended by clever people. All we need to do is put them in charge, and all will be well. But if history is a story, it is, in part, a story of catastrophic mistakes made by people who thought they were clever. Napoleon is believed to have had a genius-level IQ, but he still invaded Russia.

While not monocausal, Brexit was, in part, a recognition of this. The performance of the EU, an epistocracy if ever there was one, was weighed in the balance and found wanting. They may not have suffered much directly, but those who voted were able to look at the youth of Greece, Spain and Italy and decide they wanted to avoid such enlightened governance. Those who had been able to answer the question, “Am I Clever?” in the affirmative, had failed its follow-up, “Am I Clever Enough?”

Society is a fiendishly complex thing and there is no logical reason why it should be comprehensible to anyone, no matter how intelligent. A self-selected class of the intelligent is no less prone to groupthink than a bunch of football hooligans on the lash. Even if we could decide what the right answer looks like, we will be unable to find it unless we open up to the widest range of perspectives.  If we are to achieve the best outcomes, the last thing we want to do is to restrict power to any small group.

Boris or not, let us leave things as they are. Democracy is, after all, “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But if we do decide to change the system, perhaps we should start by banning professional politicians. As the Chinese philosopher Zuangzhi put it, “Only he who has no use for the empire is fit to be entrusted with it.”

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.