x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

Would you trust a world leader to babysit your children?

It's a flippant question, but there are increasing concerns about the competencies of our politicians, writes Gavin Esler

Newly reelected German chancellor Angela Merkel passes Gavin Esler's hypothetical babysitting challenge. Reuters
Newly reelected German chancellor Angela Merkel passes Gavin Esler's hypothetical babysitting challenge. Reuters

It cannot just be me who is thinking this, surely. But over the past few months and with increasing frequency I have been asking myself the same troubling question. World leaders and major political figures have often had delusions of grandeur. But are we now living in an age when a remarkably large number of politicians actually have delusions of competence? In trying to answer this question I’ve been playing a silly political game. Imagine you are a parent with two young children, sitting at home waiting to go out. Your babysitter calls with bad news. She is sick and cannot babysit tonight.

“But I have friends who can babysit for you,” she says, helpfully. “Just tell me which one you want.”

Then she reels off a list of names of political leaders and you have to decide whether they would be competent to look after your children for a few hours.

Angela Merkel? Yes, in my case. David Cameron? Yes. Barack Obama? Yes. Donald Trump? No. Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson? Absolutely not. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan? I’d need to see references from other babysitting jobs. Chile’s president Michele Bachelet? Yes, definitely. And so on. Well, you can see how the game goes. But it does raise the question about how it is that people we would not trust to babysit our children could end up running entire countries or in powerful government positions. The skills necessary to change nappies or negotiate Brexit are obviously very different, but both involve a great deal of trust in the competence of the people doing the job. The evidence suggests we may have entered an age in which competence is in short supply.

Two of Britain’s top academic brains — professors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe — studied the incompetence problem in Britain for their book The Blunders of Our Governments. They argue that over the past 30 or 40 years “governments of all parties appear equally blunder prone, a fact that itself suggests that there are systemic defects in the British system of government, defects rooted in the culture and institutions of Whitehall and Westminster having little to do with party leaders, party members or partisan ideologies”.

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They list at great length a series of blunders by governments, almost entirely grand and delusional schemes which fall apart and make politicians’ claims of success and brilliance appear particularly damning. Some blunders range from world-beating new computer systems to game-changing business investments, or stunningly clever reforms to social care and the health service. All of these, and many more, according to King and Crewe, were over-sold, under-delivered and embarrassing failures.

The real question is whether there are lessons to be learned about why these blunders are being made, and whether we should therefore worry about the current British government promises to obtain a wonderful deal for Britain when it leaves the European Union. It is, after all, the most difficult negotiation in living memory. King and Crewe say blunders have three key components — Cultural Disconnect, Groupthink and Operational Disconnect. By Cultural Disconnect they mean politicians in leadership positions don’t know much about the reality of what they are doing as it affects ordinary people. Groupthink means leaders in Britain all tend to come from the same class or background and therefore think alike. If you want to check this, Google how many British politicians have studied one degree at one university (politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.) Operational Disconnect means that those who come up with a clever policy are often not the ones who actually end up putting it into practice. I regret to say that each of these causes of blunders over the past 30 years can be seen to operate in the British government’s response to the Brexit vote, no matter how Theresa May’s Florence speech chooses to pitch it.

Brexit was the decision of 52 per cent of the British people, but the precise kind of Brexit was not specified. Some want what is termed as a “hard” Brexit. Others a softer version. And the 48 per cent who voted Remain may be persuadable, but many will not be satisfied with any kind of Brexit. It seems to me that however brilliant the negotiators prove to be, a majority of British people will not like whatever they come up with. I hope I am wrong, but Cultural Disconnect means the complex process of leaving the EU may lead to what historians describe as another blunder of another government, Operational Disconnect in this case, is obvious.

The prime minister did not campaign for Brexit. Nor did her chancellor, Philip Hammond. The two leaders of the process are negotiating something which they formerly publicly opposed. And as for Groupthink, well, a cynic would say that for the current British government all to think the same thing would actually be progress. Despite protests of all being together, the government, like the country, remains divided too. The Crewe-King book is very entertaining reading as history. I very much hope it is not also a prophecy about the future.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author