Monday, November 20, 2006


Politicians and that Greasy Pole

On becoming the first Jewish prime minister Benjamin Disraeli commented that he 'climbed to the top of the greasy pole', a striking image which has entered our culture as being synomous with political ambition. In the eponymous episode of Yes Minister, Humphrey asks Hacker why everything he does is related to climbing the greasy pole and he replies: 'I must climb the greasy pole because... because it's there.' The fact is, I suspect, that politicians themselves don't know why they are so driven to succeed; they just are that type of person. We all know them. They would be just as driven if they had become librarians, but have chosen or have drifted into politics.

Roy Hattersley recounts a revealing little anecdote about being recalled from holiday to deal with a crisis even though a junior minister could have done so. Wilson explained the parliamenary secretary 'was not up to it'. When Roy, surprised, asked why he had ben appointed in the first place, Wilson replied: 'We have to have one or two people like that so that other useless MPs can go on thinking they have a chance.' How many ministers can you think of who just might fit this description?

More to the point, I wonder whether the established vehicle of promotion- performance in the House- is necessarily relevant to performing well as a minister. Up to a presentational point, certainly, but does it develop adequately the other abilities a minister needs: to absorb masses of complex information rapidly; to know something about business; to be highly numerate; to draft clauses of bills accurately; to be a good manager of hundreds of employees; or to work as a team member?

In that Yes Minister episode, Hacker comments that his skill lies in interpreting what 'the great British public wants'. Humphrey remarks that the public is 'ignorant and misguided', to which Hacker replies that it was the same public who elected him. Quite. In the last analysis it's our responsibility, but do we really get the government we deserve?

I suppose one problem with the British system is the fact that there is relatively little scope for someone possessing the technocratic virtues, but little else, to rise unless they have direct patronage from the PM. With much more formalised methods of seat selection, their only method of entry into government is via the Lords, which prevents them exercising serious ministerial responsibility.

Back in the C18, the "King's Friends", dependent on royal patronage for their seats, provided a core of administrative continuity. In other political systems, it is easier to bring potential talent into an administration, as in the US. However, a good political administrator can easily founder if he or she has no real feel for the process of politics. People coming from business don't have the same appreciation of the need to forge workable consensuses and compromises when developing policy, to ensure a policy is made public adequately, and to be prepared to face the pressures of accountability if and when something goes wrong. Really effective ministers in our system do need to learn this in their time in the Commons, and we'd probably need a separation of powers to eliminate the need for this.

IMO, it's much better to concentrate on getting good administrative talent into the higher civil service ranks than the ministerial ones. You don't need a brilliant brain to be a good politician: stamina, a sense of self-preservation and raw cunning are good substitutes. But the same doesn't apply to our good Sir Humphrey.
Agree, though i'm not sure the senior civil service are quite as able as they once were. The cock-ups in the CSA, Defra and the Treasury suggest they are as fallible as their political masters.
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