Serial incompetence

‘The only conclusion is serial incompetence,’ were Keir Starmer’s words when replying to Boris Johnson at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Every government makes egregious mistakes – hovers on the brink from time to time. But incompetence has never been institutionalised, as it is now, from education across to foreign policy. Theresa May’s government hovered close, but she at least had six years as Home Secretary behind her. Johnson’s cabinet has various skills, not least first-class degrees in economics and PPE. But little or none when it comes to government. If competence is the left hand, then the right hand is flair. There is little of that either – maybe one senior minister, and he shall be nameless.

Theresa May relied on Nick Timothy. She wasn’t fully her own person. Boris Johnson relies on Cummings. The last Tsar and the Tsarina relied on Rasputin. Leaders should be their own men, or women. Merkel, Macron, Shinzo Abe are all good examples.

Erdogan (Turkey), Orban (Hungary), Kaczynski (Poland – I’m staying within EU boundaries) are their own men, you could argue. And at another level Xi Jinping and Trump. But they are out and out nationalists, all with an interest in restricting or, worse, suppressing rather than expanding debate.

But if we believe in representative and accountable democracy then it’s the Macrons and Merkels we need. Even a Cameron.

Accountable. That presupposes open debate. A press that presents and represents all shades of opinion. A society that welcomes ideas, and values expertise.

We’ve never been happy with the notion of an intelligentsia in this country. For Michael Gove, attacking expertise, it was an open goal. Universities are a target. Intellectual debate does indeed go down some odd byways. The likes of Douglas Murray find easy targets (post-structuralism, cancel culture), and disparage the wider institution. (15th August, Telegraph headline: ‘British universities have become indoctrination camps.’) If it’s not universities it’s chattering classes.  The problem is elites. We don’t like elites. I wouldn’t argue against that. But when ideas and informed debate are characterised as elitist – then we should worry.

That gives the opening to populism. Single ideas. Single identities. In our case, of course, it’s Brexit. We can’t, it seems, agree on fisheries policy, or state aid. David North is out there not-negotiating hard for a no-deal Brexit. (And as of today there are suggestions the government might renege on the Northern Ireland protocol in last year’s withdrawal agreement.)

Single ideas and identities are by their nature non-negotiable. Finding common ground, working with and not against others, is an alien mindset. Anger drives debate or negotiation. An instinct to confront and disrupt dictates.

Barack Obama set out in 2009 with an agenda of bringing countries together – new agendas for the Middle East, for Africa. Finding common ground. He discovered how difficult that could be.

Coming together in politics is so much harder than pulling apart. The Arab Spring brought that home, and the Syrian outcome was brutal. Obama could claim rapprochement in Cuba and indeed Iran. But it was a small reward for much effort.

The US economy under Obama had recovered well from the 2008 financial crash. It was at the very least (though Republicans of a Trumpian persuasion would disagree) a competent administration with good intentions.

But competence is not enough. Emotion and instinct behind single and easily assimilable ideas set their own agenda. Competence is non-essential.

That said, thinking of the UK, a government characterised by incompetence does at least give its opponents an opening…

A hostile environment

‘Migration hardly gets a mention’ I wrote in a post two days ago. I was wrong.

The Home Secretary as I wrote was beginning a round of interviews explaining her new immigration proposals. A minimum salary limit of £26500 would be imposed for anyone taking a job in the U.K. Business groups, and the farming, hospitality and care sectors, have expressed their alarm. Patel insisted that it would be necessary for businesses to look more to potential British workers, helping them to ‘up their skills and makes their skills more relevant to the job market.’ (The Guardian.) There are eight million economically inactive people who businesses can draw in.

I’m not qualified to provide a full critique of her proposals. But I’m perplexed as to how the care sector can by the end of the year replace the low-paid overseas staff who are critical to its functioning, and how as a sector it can in short order redesign its business models so as to pay more and draw in some of the economically inactive, who aren’t in fact inactive, but are students and home carers, and the sick and elderly.

It will be goodbye to ‘cheap low-skilled labour from Europe’, as Patel describes it. If that does indeed happen I will miss them. They have contributed a lot, helped our world go round a bit better, and broadened our minds. The only plus is for countries like Poland who will get their ‘unskilled labour’ back, and they will benefit from the energies we will lose.

There is an arrogance and a crassness about the proposals which ought to embarrass but not in a government where attitudes if not all policy details are dictated by Cummings. Patel and Cummings it seems are of a piece. There’s a front-page article in Thursday’s Times about Patel’s arrogance. She’s at odds with her permanent secretary at the Home Office. We don’t know the details. But indications are there’s fall-out related to the immigration proposals, to the removal of the phrase ‘institutionally racist’ from the report into the Windrush scandal, and to attempts to reverse a High Court ruling barring the deportation of twenty-five ‘foreign’ criminals to Jamaica. (Foreign-born but brought up in the UK. If they are brought up here, they are surely our responsibility.) Theresa May practised a ‘hostile environment’ policy, Patel is taking it a step further.

I cannot be ‘philosophical’ (I did try!) about a government which shows itself more and more to be of the hard right. The agenda of Scruton and Starkey I mentioned in my last post is indeed this government’s agenda. Obedience we know is expected of Tory MPs, as the new MPs were reminded, but the nation too must fall into line. The old liberal nation with its broad sympathies and attempts at least at human understanding must be consigned to history.

Cummings has in the last few days been forced to sack a newly recruited adviser, Andrew Sabicky, who has espoused some highly unpalatable eugenicist views. His own comments on designer babies also cause concern. Would-be parents would inevitably select babies with ‘the highest potential for IQ’. ‘An NHS system should fund everybody to do this,’ thereby avoiding an unfair advantage to the better off.

After drafting this post I read an article in The Times by Rachel Sylvester. We are on the same page on this government. Cummings is indeed ‘not a Conservative’. He espouses creative destruction. Taking over the institutions. Re-framing the debate. They’re issues I’ve referred to before in this blog. Redefining what is considered to be ‘normal’. You could say that with Scruton and Starkey they were ‘academic’ arguments. But this isn’t academic.  It’s for real.

In Sylvester’s words, Cummings ‘is convinced that the institutions he wants to overthrow are run by an unelected metropolitan liberal elite. There may be some truth in this, but, in the name of the people, he appears to want to replace the current equilibrium with something more dangerous – autocratic centralised power’.