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My country: flying blind

August 5, 2022

I don’t believe I’m acquainted with a single one of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who will choose my country’s next prime minister. So I can’t even comment in any small way on what this privileged minority is thinking, unless I choose to believe the opinion polls, the vox-pop interviews and the utterings of the candidates designed to mirror the prejudices of the lucky few. Much as it would be satisfying to sneer at the garage owners, the golf club bores and the upwardly mobile Tory boys, it would also be dishonest, because I’ve never encountered any of them, at least knowingly.

Equally pleasurable would be to recycle the insults thrown at Liz Truss – that she’s a lightweight version of Boris Johnson, that she’s equally a serial liar and that she’s as thick as a two short planks. Likewise the brickbats thrown at Rishi Sunak – that he’s too rich to relate to the rest of us, that his policies will condemn us to years of penury and that under the mask of bonhomie is a nasty mansplaining boor.

I’ve never met them, so I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s almost impossible to judge the character, intellectual capabilities and suitability of either of them for high office. Why? For more than one reason.

First, though both have held senior ministerial positions, they’ve done so in a time when their freedom to operate their ministries with a modicum of independence has been severely limited by the diktat of the prime minister and his acolytes. If something a minister does works, the prime minister will immediately take credit for it. Any disaster will lead to the minister being disowned or sacked.

Secondly, it’s impossible to know – and this applies as much to the prime minister as it does to every minister – what policies, ideas and initiatives spring from the imagination and intellect of the minister, and to what extent they rely on others to do the thinking for them.

In most cases ministers are presented with options – either by their political advisers or civil servants. It’s then the politician’s role to decide on which option to go for. As any fan of Yes Minister or The Thick of It will know, these decisions are usually made with an eye on their standing with the electorate rather than their long-term efficacy. In recent years it seems that the former usually trumps the latter.

This enables a minister without a single original thought in their head to appear far-sighted, wise or just a jolly good person to whom the electorate can relate.

In this case what we don’t know is whether either candidate – or the ones that didn’t make the cut for that matter – has that single original thought, or is simply an empty vessel filled with other people’s ideas and a good enough memory to trot out those ideas and the justifications for them in interviews, debates and casual encounters.

In other words, even if we were one of the few electors, we wouldn’t have a clue who we were electing barring the most superficial impression of the candidate’s personality. Which is how we ended up with Boris Johnson. We’re flying blind. Worse than that, in fact. Whoever is chosen gets to select their team of advisors, who might be the most talented team ever assembled or the most woeful set of dullards. Did those who selected Boris Johnson vote for Dominic Cummings? Obviously not.

As for the ministers whom the next prime minister will select, nobody, not even the Tory members, have any say on whether the likes of Nadine Dorries, Suella Braverman or Priti Patel, three of the more repugnant voices (in my view) in Johnson’s cabinet, will continue in office or be thrown out on their ears.

So it goes. That’s politics.

But how do you judge these people? On what they say, which is usually dictated by “the line to take”? On what they do, which is circumscribed by an untrusting centre and a cautious civil service?

Or do you base your opinions on what a person did before they entered politics? Which, in the case of Truss, is a few years with a couple of multinationals. Effectively, she’s a career politician. And in Sunak’s case, consultancy and hedge fund management, about which the average joe in the pub would no more have a clue than they would about the economics of Outer Mongolia.

It’s true that there are a number of politicians who have had eclectic working lives pre-politics. Wide experience often tends to give the person a wider wisdom, and dare one say it, the ability to think for themselves, which is never popular at the centre of power.

Perhaps, rather than staging debates in which candidates lob policies at each other, few of which are of their own invention, we might get a better insight into the character and potential of those before us by using a technique from the real world: situational interviewing. Rather than asking the person about their fiscal policies, why not describe a situation and ask them to provide an example of how they dealt with it? A crisis, for example, or a lesson in leadership learnt from hard experience. God forbid that they be asked to describe a mistake, and how they recovered from it.

Unfortunately those questions are usually asked of politicians in one-to-one interviews, and are rarely challenging. Which is why you had Theresa May, when asked if she ever broke the rules, reply that she once trespassed though a field of wheat.

Another technique that might be interesting is the panel interview, wherein the candidate is interrogated by several people, any one of whom might have a curveball question up their sleeve, and each of whom is appointed according to their different perspective. In other words, not a random selection of the faithful.

No doubt many of them faced such questions when going through the selection process in their constituencies, but since then, most of them – apart from those accused of indiscretions – have only faced scrutiny over how they are doing their jobs rather than whether they are suitable for those jobs in the first place.

It would be pointless asking them to go through some of the more sophisticated assessment techniques on the market. That would never happen. But at least some structured, penetrating questions that don’t depend on the wit of a single journalist would be helpful. As many Tories would like you to believe, old school isn’t always bad school.

There are several Conservative politicians who have backgrounds worthy of exploring, but they tend to end up in the cold. Rory Stewart, for example, who governed a province in Iraq after the Gulf War and is an award-winning travel writer. Tom Tugendhat had an interesting military career, which included tours in Afghanistan. Beside the military, there are former civil servants, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and even accountants who should be able to to give good reasons why what they learned in those professions qualified them for careers in politics. Not so many social workers and bus drivers I’m afraid – they tend to migrate to other parties. But the current Tory ranks do include a mental health doctor, whose experience should be very relevant in these troubled times.

I have no affection for the Conservative Party. I’ve never voted for them and probably never will. But even though most of its representatives seem to have been pre-selected for their blind adherence to narrow sets of beliefs – and most of those uncomfortable with those beliefs, such as Stewart, have now left Parliament – it would be wrong to assume that all of them are without talent, principles and honesty. Even Liz Truss was probably honest once, before she immersed herself in the current culture of mendacity as the price to be paid for advancement and power.

Who knows? Perhaps the chosen one will confound my low expectations of them and rise to the occasion. If they don’t, they’ll almost certainly be gone in two years time when the next general election comes round.

But my point is, as I said earlier, that we’re flying blind. Not a comforting thought at a time of national crisis. One wonders what might have happened if, in 1940, when Chamberlain resigned, Britain’s future was determined by the votes of 160,000 people.

In politics, especially now, policies are often as ephemeral as passing clouds. What really matters is character. Good luck, Prime Minister. Show us what you’re made of.

From → Politics, Social, UK

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