We value expertise and time served in almost every walk of life, except politics, writes Gavin Esler
Could western democracies learn from the Chinese political model?
My new job description is “professional tennis player”, although Rafa Nadal can rest easy. I’m enthusiastic but incompetent. And by “professional”, I mean I play tennis when I should be working. The idea of amateur enthusiasm posing as professional competence is one of the stories of our time. I recently met a woman who claimed to be a “citizen journalist”. She had no journalistic training, no media experience, but she writes a blog. I wondered whether she might also claim to be a citizen dentist because she brushes her teeth. Of course, writing a blog, putting a video on YouTube or using social media are perfectly acceptable 21st century hobbies. A few bloggers earn money by offering fashion tips, cookery ideas and travel advice and some have obtained book contracts. While blogging statistics are unreliable, the best guess is of more than a billion active websites worldwide and at least 300 million blogs. But more people write blogs than actually read them, and the internet has become an enormous enabler for the modern cult of amateurism. Any one of us can publicise our enthusiastic, but inexpert, opinions on global warming, homeopathy, the Trump presidency or the wonders of turmeric.
But as an antidote to the cult of amateurism, in the next few months, many professions traditionally hold awards ceremonies, which are a celebration, not of amateurism, but of expertise, hard skills and real achievements. I’m a judge for some journalism awards, and unlike the blogs of the “citizen journalist”, the entries I have seen are fact-based, hugely inventive, well-researched and informative. I’ve also been privileged, this month, to hand out awards to celebrate the excellence of architects, engineers and craftsmen in the British building industry.
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These men and women have extraordinary flair and hard skills, judged by a panel of experts in their various fields. In the run-up to Christmas, many of the best movies of the year will be released because the studios want to showcase their own excellence for the Bafta and Oscar juries. We can argue about our favourite films and sometimes complain about the winners, but broadly, the best in every category are up for consideration because expertise, achievement and hard skills count in the entertainment business, too.
But there is one area of our lives where expertise is generally derided: in democratic governments. There are few more abusive phrases in democracies than “that person is a “career politician”. In Britain, the cult of the political amateur has a long history. Parliament traditionally did not sit in the mornings to allow “gentlemen” to tend to their business interests. By mid afternoon, MPs would leave the courtrooms and boardrooms to spend a few hours at Westminster running the British Empire. More recently, Tony Blair opens his autobiography with a boast of amateurism: “On 2 May, 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time…. It was my first and only job in government.”
David Cameron, similarly, had many back-office advisory roles in politics, but his first government job was also as prime minister. Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have made the French and US presidencies entry-level positions for ambitious amateurs.
But does this make any more sense than the idea that anyone can be anything? Other systems, the Chinese for example, place a much higher value on experience. An ambitious Beijing bureaucrat will have started as a minor functionary in a small city council or in an obscure province, then perhaps rising to be a mayor or a provincial leader, followed by a job in a significant ministry, and then, after several decades of demonstrable competence, perhaps a chance of real power in Beijing.
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The shortcomings of the Chinese system are well-documented: authoritarian one-party rule, intolerance of dissent, repression, nepotism and corruption. But could Western democracies learn from how experience is prized in the East? Is it unrealistic to expect candidates for top-level government jobs to have served an apprenticeship in public office, perhaps as a local councillor, police commissioner, in the military or in some other profession with a clear public purpose? The cult of the amateur does not help solve our most intractable problems. International politics attracts politicians who talk a good game, but whose achievements are often slender. For some years now, when I have been at literary British festivals, I often ask audiences which British politicians they admire. The name of foreign secretary Boris Johnson generally comes up. Then I ask the supportive audiences to list Mr Johnson’s specific achievements, and they tend to go very quiet. Democracies would be improved if we judged leaders less on what they say and more on what they do. Voters should demand evidence of practical success in the public interest, rather than entertaining speeches. Amateurism has its place in government, in journalism and also on the tennis court, but lack of expertise means politicians routinely promise far more than they achieve. That needs to change, not because we need more “career politicians”, but because we need more competent ones.