Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…
… Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…’
The Hollow Men, T.S. Elliot.
In the past few months, between days of wading in concrete (where I am today – no interviews I’m afraid) I’ve been pottering around the country talking to people about politics and our education reforms. The contrast between watching the commentariat and MPs discussing ‘what the euro election means’ while spending hours per day talking to the people who had voted – two very different worlds – prompted me to jot some thoughts as I drove around. Somewhere around Birmingham, listening to a radio discussion of the election and the three leaders’ responses then listening to the news about the black flags racing south while Hague posed with Angelina, a line from the poem above popped into my head and I thought, hollow, hollow, hollow.
The Times interview today prompts me to put those jottings on my blog to explain a bit better what I mean. I don’t have time to do all in one go so I’ll break them up. Part II shortly. It’s written in haste and please send corrections, comments etc to firstname.lastname@example.org
The long view
In the summer of 1862, as he awaited the summons to become prime minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck had a wonderful summer flirting with a beautiful Russian princess in the south of France and travelling to London. There, he had dinner with many of the leading British politicians of the day. After one dinner, he wrote to his wife about how little our leaders understood of European politics: ‘[Palmerston] and, to an only slightly lesser degree, Lord Russell too were in a state of complete ignorance… The British ministers know less about Prussia than about Japan and Mongolia.’ Soon after this party, the fateful telegram arrived – ‘Periculum in mora. Depechez vouz‘ – and a profound nonlinearity hit world politics.
For the next 150 years, those at the apex of British politics made colossal error after error.
By 1870, eight years after that dinner party, Bismarck had isolated France and the revolutionary Prussian army (a force decentralised to an unprecedented degree, contra British stereotypes) prepared to smash Napoleon III. The records show Whitehall in chaos over what to do about our guarantees of Belgian neutrality and it watched in bewilderment as Bismarck changed the course of world history with the unification of Germany.
Forty-four years later in 1914, the confusion over guarantees to Belgium, often expressed in almost identical language to 1870, resurfaced. Whitehall was overwhelmed by the crisis, the leading politicians had ignored the hard questions of exactly what we would and would not do in particular circumstances such as a German invasion of Belgium, and we tottered into a war which Asquith had confidently said to his mistress, only days earlier, that we would avoid. Despite 44 years to think about the crisis of 1870, we screwed up very similar questions. ‘Judge of the Nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget – lest we forget’, warned Kipling at the Diamond Jubilee in 1897, but Whitehall forgot 1870 and we were barely spared.
A quarter of a century later, for the third time our leadership was intellectually, psychologically, and institutionally unprepared to deal with the question of deterring Germany and we tottered into another world war for which we were unprepared.
Before both wars, our machinery for military and political planning was an abject failure. After August 1911, the Committee on Imperial Defence failed to have a single serious discussion with the prime minister about the main issues until the war broke out – an appalling failure by Asquith and others. During both wars, the tactical and operational superiority of German forces was eventually outweighed by their political leaders making more big mistakes than ours did, and, thankfully, Hitler would not appoint someone like von Manstein as supreme commander.
After 1945, the ‘Rolls Royce’ Foreign Office made a historic misjudgement about the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and arrogantly dismissed Monnet who understood better than them how to change the world.
Our economy stuttered, the empire shrank. We failed to formulate a new national policy – an answer to Acheson’s famous jibe that we had lost an empire but failed to find a new role. In area after area, we either consciously abandoned trying to be a serious player (e.g. satellites and space) or cocked it up and frittered away big advantages (e.g. aerospace, computing). (My essay is an attempt to answer Acheson’s challenge.)
After our next disaster – Suez – the Conservative Party made another grand historical error – it begged to join the European Community, seeking in membership a way to avoid thinking about hard problems. After botching the attempts to join, we gave France whatever it wanted as an entry fee then spent the next thirty years handing over more and more power because those in charge could not think of anything else to do. Thatcher too failed here and when she woke up she was chopped.
Having run the world’s monetary system pre-1914, we spent 1945-1992 botching monetary policy (unlike Germany and Switzerland), we lurched from crisis to crisis, and eventually threw ourselves into the ERM only to be ejected in ignominy shortly afterwards. Then we were told that we had to join the euro or we would be ruined.
Thatcher dealt with some of the worst excesses of accumulated errors and weakness. But she failed on monetary policy, Europe, health, education, and welfare. John Hoskyns’ book Just In Time is a brilliant explanation of why she failed, analysing the interconnected issues of MPs’ qualities and Whitehall’s dynamics. (It is telling how little discussed this book is in Westminster.) If she had taken his advice and gone for all-out civil service reform with a proper PM’s department and different people running it, as Hoskyns pressed her to do – i.e. if she had been much more revolutionary – then much more could have been done (though such a move would obviously be an all-or-nothing gamble for any prime minister who really tried it and one can see why she shied away). She thought Hoskyns’ plan was too radical and, trying to muddle through, she fell. Her successors have struggled with the same issues of pulling what appear to be ‘levers’ in No.10 only to find that they are connected to the wrong thing, or not connected to anything at all (see below).
Whatever one’s view of the right response to 9/11 and international terrorism, it is obvious that our leaders and institutions coped badly yet again and have not learned the lessons of recent failures. Our approach to the EU now – whining, rude, dishonest, unpleasant, childishly belligerent in public while pathetically craven in private, and overall hollow – fits the pattern and the supposed ‘renegotiation’ will be the next bullet point on this list (if it’s tried), together with the next so-called National Security Strategy and the next Defence Review. Now, as the black flags of ISIS fly and Putin seeks to break NATO, Hague poses for the cameras with Angelina and Cameron’s closest two advisors stick with the only thing they know – a ten day planning horizon (at best) of feeding the lobby (badly) and changing tack to fit the babbling commentariat (while blaming juniors for their own failings).
Hollow, hollow, hollow…
The consequences of our inability to develop political institutions able to think wisely about the biggest problems in order to pre-empt some crises – ‘to win without fighting’ as Sun Tzu put it – are ever greater because scientific progress also brings ever greater destructive possibilities. Does anybody think our current system is thinking wisely about possible equivalents to the rise of Germany post-1870, such as autonomous robotics, synthetic biology, the rise of China, or the collision of Islam with modernity?
Markets and science show that some fields of human endeavour work much better than political decision-making. I think we could do much much better if we will face our problems honestly…
Coming soon, Part II – what does work, why Whitehall doesn’t work, and how we could do things better…