On the failure of political leadership

Everyone stay calm! This is not happening!

King Arnulf in Erik the Viking by Terry Jones

Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to current events in, say, the last couple of years will be aware of at least one crisis besetting the industrial world. We have, of course, had the Covid-19 pandemic, which still seems to be ongoing as I write this despite various claims of success. There is the climate crisis. There is the biodiversity crisis, which gets rather less airtime, possibly because it poses less of an immediate threat to the insurance industry. There are various debt crises – the Chinese property market is the debt crisis du jour, but when has there not been at least one somewhere?

There is also a crisis of confidence in governments and in public institutions more generally. When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom tells people not to panic-buy fuel, panic-buying of fuel promptly ensues. For someone in his position, there is no swifter way to cause panic than to tell everyone not to panic. It speaks volumes that he did so anyway.

All these crises are hopelessly entangled, and trying to solve one usually results in at least three others getting worse. Public spending to alleviate the effects of the pandemic only adds to the debt crisis, for instance. The current high price of natural gas is having impacts on both industry and agriculture, which by further damaging the economy will also end up piling on more debt. The collapse of public confidence in the official line also tends to undermine vaccination programmes, and so on. And of course doing pretty much anything in an industrial context screws with the environment.

Human beings are not terribly good at coping with this sort of thing, for understandable reasons. When our ancestors evolved back on the African savannah, they certainly had to deal with crises, but these tended to arrive one at a time and to be obvious and acute, for example being attacked by a lion. In that situation, you are not going to be worrying about the long-term consequences of climbing the nearest tree, nor do you need to. Solving the immediate problem at hand is all that’s required.

Unfortunately this is not the kind of situation we have to deal with. I don’t claim to know all the major issues facing industrial civilisation today, but I can think of plenty more than I’ve already mentioned, and doubtless so can you. What we tend to miss, though, is the interactions between them. This is not something our brains are especially well-equipped to deal with, and it would be surprising if they were.

But what is making all of these problems worse is the thoroughgoing ineptitude of the political leaders who are supposed to be dealing with them. This is not a party political point. I cannot name a single prominent political figure in the United Kingdom who shows the remotest sign of the competence required to address any of them singly, let alone all of them together. Nor do other countries in the industrialised world appear to be faring much better.

Winston Churchill famously told the British people that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat. People forget that this was not a platform on which he stood for election. He didn’t become Prime Minister in 1940 because the British people chose him – it was an internal party decision – and when he did stand for election after the war he was thrown out on his ear. On the other hand, Barack Obama won two terms as President of the United States on a nebulous promise of hope and change, without noticeably delivering much of either.

Politicians win elections by promising goodies. Sometimes the promise is nothing more than being less appalling than the alternative – this seems to be the usual approach in the USA, and it certainly worked for Tony Blair in 1997 – but in general the message always has to be: “Vote for me, and things will get better.”

This would be okay if things had any real prospect of getting better, but they don’t. When Churchill came to power in 1940, there was no point in pretending that the immediate future was at all bright. He therefore had the luxury of being able to be realistic. He also had the luxury of having one big obvious problem in front of him. Modern leaders have neither.

Even if they did, however, there’s no reason to suppose they’d be up to the job. There is too vast a gulf between the political realm and the reality it seeks to control, or at least react to. Most of those with access to the levers of power have a very narrow experience of the world, if only because they tend to be drawn from the richer end of society. Some of them have never had a career outside of politics. They have never had to work around hard limits, because they have never been faced with them. They have never had to choose between keeping warm in winter and having enough to eat. The lower reaches of Maslow’s pyramid are unknown to them. Nor are they eager to rock the boat when they are the ones in the first-class cabins.

Such people are even less likely than most of us to face up to uncomfortable truths. Indeed, it seems as if our political class actively seeks to protect itself from them. The strongest word a modern politician can utter is “challenge,” and even then they do so in the secret belief that someone else will actually have to deal with it.

Even worse, they occasionally seem to entertain fantasies of their own omnipotence, as notoriously exemplified by Karl Rove. Certainly they appear to believe Koko’s version of how government works:

It’s like this: When your Majesty says, “Let a thing be done,” it’s as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, “Kill a gentleman,” and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?

W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, Act II

So if a President or a Prime Minister makes a speech saying that we must all take (say) climate change very seriously, nothing much actually has to be done. It is entirely to the credit of Greta Thunberg that she won’t stand for any of this flannel and is prepared to say so in public. There are plenty more who will say so in private.

Some of the problems we face are probably insoluble, and we are certainly not capable of solving all of them. We could, however, accomplish many useful things if governments were prepared to take their responsibilities seriously and to act in the best interests of those they govern. As it is, we are going to have to do the best we can without them. They have made themselves into yet another problem instead, tangled up with all the others.

I am not advocating a revolution. But profound political change can occur without a revolution ever taking place. Nobody campaigned to bring down the Roman Empire, but it fell all the same. And when it did, I doubt most people missed it much. There will be life on the other side of all this, and perhaps in some ways a better life, even if you and I may not live to see it. But that’s a matter for another post.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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