The bluffocracy: how Britain ended up being run by eloquent chancers

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

Any time we see a politician fail, or an idiotic policy collapse as it passes through parliament — which these days seems like a regular occurrence — we are left with a familiar feeling. That this screw-up is the result of a chancer at work. Someone who has, at the very best, a shallow understanding of the country they’re trying to govern. Someone who knew how to come up with a headline-grabbing idea, and how to make it sound convincing and radical — but didn’t ever have the faintest idea how to implement it.

What we see perhaps less often is that the UK has — for a variety of cultural, social, and economic reasons — set up our public life so that the chancers are best suited to the system, and are most likely to rise to the top.

This is what you might call the British bluffocracy. We have become a nation run by people whose knowledge extends a mile wide but an inch deep; who know how to grasp the generalities of any topic in minutes, and how never to bother themselves with the specifics. Who place their confidence in their ability to talk themselves out of trouble, rather than learning how to run things carefully. And who were trained in this dubious art as teenagers: often together on the same university course.

This malaise is not confined to politics, but is present in a terrifyingly wide range of our institutions. The way we educate the people who will enter public life, the way our career structures work, and the institutions themselves that we have built — from parliament to the civil service to the political press gallery — all favour the bluffers. David Cameron was teased as the ‘essay-crisis’ prime minister, a governing style that worked for him until he failed his Brexit essay. But other consequences are deeper still: the short-termism of our institutions is, in no small part, due to bluffing. As the Brexit preparations (or lack thereof) are beginning to demonstrate.

The typical British bluffer is male, well-polished and the product of public school: the same sort of chap with the same sort of chat. It’s invariably a chap. Women make up two in five senior civil servants and one in three MPs. People of black and minority ethnic origin make up 15 per cent of the country but just 8 per cent of MPs, 7 per cent of senior civil servants, and 6 per cent of national journalists.

Being governed by a bluffocracy creates a skills gap that political bluffers like to bemoan: one recent study suggests just 9 per cent of candidates at last year’s election had degrees in science or technology. This is true of only one of Labour’s 258 MPs: Chi Onwurah, an engineer. The British system of government often sees ministers with no expertise being put in charge of — for example — the National Health Service, one of the largest organisations on the planet.

As a result, top politicians of both parties end up spinning arguments they often barely understand and certainly don’t mean. The supposed watchdogs — political journalists — are often just as bad. And the crisis of trust in mainstream politics and journalism alike does raise the question of whether the bluffers are being found out.

The blaggers meanwhile, are becoming more brazen. Look, for example, at George Osborne, who became editor of a major newspaper with only a few weeks of journalism work experience to his name. His secret? Being utterly unfazed: by that, or the other five jobs he took on. Then take Brexit, the biggest overhaul in British government for a generation or more. And advocated with utter confidence by bluffers who, it quickly turned out, had no idea what they were talking about.

Most bluffers are made, not born — and the archetypical bluffer’s degree is, of course, Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s taught at a number of universities across the UK, but is most strongly associated with Oxford. Students are marinated in an adversarial university tutorial system which favours the quick thinker over the deep rival. A standard setup for a politics tutorial, for example, is to have one student read their essay while the other is encouraged to attack it. If they don’t, their own work will come under far closer scrutiny.

This is how the school for bluffers works. Those who prosper are not those who possess the deepest knowledge, but who can deliver a clever quip or a leftfield surprise argument. The ‘essay crisis’ skill trains people to cram what’s supposed to be 20-odd careful hours of reading, research and writing into five hours, and to disguise their shoddiness by delivering a counter-intuitive argument so bold that it disguises the fact that they have not done the work. It’s a skill for life. Or at least for government.

To look at PPE alumni is to understand how Britain is run by the bluffing skill that it teaches. Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, Matt Hancock, his successor as Health Secretary, Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and Liz Truss, his deputy. Then add Nick Robinson, Ed Miliband, Robert Peston and Toby Young of this parish to our earlier list. Olly Robbins, the civil servant in charge of Brexit. The list goes on, and reads like Who’s Who. Well, you might say, it was ever thus. The British system has always sent MPs with no direct experience to run departments, but their job is to give political direction while the expertise is applied by bureaucratic experts. But the civil service, too, has fallen to the bluffocracy.

Government ministers are notoriously itinerant — Sajid Javid, for example, has held seven jobs in six years. But for a successful civil servant, too, it’s crucial to stay on the move. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Department for Exiting the EU, where the National Audit Office found out that almost one in ten staff move on within three months — a churn rate around four times the civil service average. Never mind being caught when the music stops. When it comes to Brexit, many of the civil servants will be far from the scene before it even starts.

Brexit is not the only area in which this is happening. Jane Furniss, a former senior civil servant in the Home Office, says the Windrush debacle was also a consequence of the short-termism which afflicts government. ‘The architects of the “hostile environment” policy are probably no longer in that area of work at all, and even if they were warned of consequences, they will have been focused on delivering the policy — they won’t be there when it comes home.’

Nick Hardwick, who stepped down as chair of the parole board amid the row over the decision to grant parole to the convicted rapist John Worboys, once put it well. The civil servants who get on, he said, ‘are those that can write a good minute which gets a minister out of trouble’ rather than ‘those who can run things so they don’t get into trouble in the first place’.

He could have gone further. A first-class bluffer knows how and when to speak in meetings, due to having learnt this skill at private school or Oxbridge. For example: if you don’t know much in a meeting, speak early, while the relatively obvious points are still available to be made. By contrast, if you’ve got a killer detail or argument you think others lack — especially if it could prove decisive — wait until the end, so it sticks with people. This and dozens of other tricks — speaking in the intakes of breath that others leave, knowing when to drop a rhetorical question, knowing just how much research to do — are used to get attention.

The final pillar of the bluffocracy is the media, which is supposed to hold the other two institutions to account. Some of the UK’s most talented journalists work in parliament, but they are — by design — generalists, being asked to report about defence issues one day, and train takeovers the next. This system serves to insulate ministers from questions by subject-matter experts. Whatever the scandal in the headlines — nuclear waste, universal credit, implementation of Brexit — there is likely to be in most major newsrooms an expert on the topic. Someone who has spoken to people at the front line of the policy, whether that means people who are affected by it or who are trying to implement it on the ground. At best, thanks to the lobby system, they will be able to try to urge a colleague in the parliamentary press gallery to lob in a question or two. Rarely do specialists get an interview themselves.

So lobby journalists — who are physically and culturally removed from their colleagues — inevitably become more drawn into the game of politics than the realities of its consequences. This is a system which encourages politics as a game by its very design.

And it’s a system that the public is beginning to tire of. A YouGov survey into mistrust of government found that only 13 per cent of voters would rule out a politician who had taken Class A drugs and only 14 per cent would rule out a married heterosexual MP who later admitted he was gay. But 55 per cent would draw the line at a politician who had ‘never had a “real” job outside of politics, think tanks or journalism’. In other words, the public are pretty sick of bluffers in public life.

Can things change? Not in Westminster anytime soon. It’s hard to look at modern frontbenchers and see much hope there in the short-run. As for Whitehall: it is 160 years since the civil service had a genuinely comprehensive look at itself, and an examination is overdue. But if history is any guide, a decent-sized war is probably the only reliable way of getting this done.

We will always need generalists to master new situations quickly, to group specialists together and to help communicate what they find. But the balance of power has moved too far in the bluffers’ favour — at a time when the country is crying out for some proper expertise. It’s time to reshape our institutions to let the experts in, to reward serious knowledge. We need a system that works, and experts who are willing to join it. Any volunteers?

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