For most of my life I have been fascinated by two-man teams. Much is written in the management books about the decision making and leadership skills of individuals. Much is made of teams, of about six to a dozen or so people (a dozen being reckoned by most to be about the upper limit before factionalism sets in), and about the skill of building effective teams. But less, it seems to me, is made of the partnership of two, despite the fact that everywhere you look in the world of human accomplishment, you see two-man teams, often famously named: Rolls Royce, Gilbert and Sullivan, Laurel and Hardy, Powell and Pressberger, Pratt and Whitney, Rogers and Hammerstein, Flanders and Swan… trust me, the game of naming two man teams goes on for as long as you have time to devote to it. I could have machine-gunned this posting with links, but Google is Google – another now famously accomplished two-man team runs that, I believe – and I could not be bothered. Partly this is because this is, be warned now, a rather long posting, and doing proper links would have taken me the whole day.
Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man. Time and again, the famous period of apparently individual creativity coincides precisely with the time when that anonymous partner was also but less obtrusively beavering away, contributing crucially to the outcome, and often crucially saying boo to the goose when the goose laid a duff egg. If deprived, for some reason, of his back-up man, the Lone Genius falls silent, or mysteriously fails at everything else he attempts. Think Elizabeth the First and … damn, I can not remember his name, but he was crucial, and Elizabeth was never the same after he had died. Cecil, that was him.
That literature and showbiz are so full of two-man teams is evidence of the enormous emotional importance that we all attach to these partnerships. Every TV detective, for instance, seems to have his Dr Watson figure, less inspired, but perhaps emotionally more adult, who buys the pint afterwards, soothes the frazzled nerves of the great detective, and who generally carries the can and tidies up after. For every Holmes there is a Watson, for every Morse, a Lewis. And for every Regan, a Carter. Major kudos to the late John Thaw for having participated in – having lead, actually – two very different but equally famous two-man teams of British TV coppers. Sport is full of two man teams, often because there actually are two men in the team, as with tennis doubles or two man rowing teams. But equally fascinating are the famous two-man teams that flourish within bigger teams, like striking partnerships in soccer, half-back or centre three-quarter pairings in rugby (Sella and Charvet), or opening batting (Hobbes and Sutcliffe) or bowling partnerships (Trueman and Statham, Lillee and Thompson, Ambrose and Walsh) in cricket. England’s cricket team has never quite been the same since Trescothick and Strauss were numbers one and two in the batting order, as they were in 2005 when the Ashes were last won. Trescothick left the side, and Strauss went from being a huge force to a huge disappointment. In cricket see also the Middlesex “twins”, Compton and Edrich.
Comedians often come in pairs: Martin and Lewis, French and Saunders, Morecambe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy I have already mentioned, and many more that you are no doubt astonished that I have neglected to mention. Comic duos are able to explore the endless conundra involved in being part of a more or less functional or dysfunctional partnership. Because, as most of us know, partners often do not especially like each other. Simply, they both need each other for either of them to accomplish anything. Gilbert and Sullivan could hardly stand the sight of each other by the end, and had a long period when they each tried to make a go of it separately. Only the need for money, and the less well remembered crutch to their two legs, Richard d’Oyly Carte, brought them together again.
In my own line of business two-man teams abound. In the free market activism, think-tank trade, it is noticeable that success and successful partnership have a habit of going hand in hand, if you will pardon that mostly very inappropriate way of putting it. IEA: Harris and Seldon. Rumour had it that they never really liked each other that much, but the IEA has never been the same since age put an end to their partnership. ASI: Pirie and Butler…still going quite strong, but are their glory days over? And, though I say it myself, Libertarian Alliance: Tame and Micklethwait. This latter two-man team got under way in the early 1980s and lasted for somewhat more than a decade. Much of what I know about two-man teams – what they are, how to become part of one, how to operate within one, how they end – I learned from being half of that dynamic (at any rate as I tell it) duo.
I have been calling these teams two-man teams, but of course by man I really only mean person. Many a showbiz team has consisted of a man and a woman, often portraying a romantic magic that was singularly lacking in their real relationship, or which faded far faster than they pretended in public. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were never romantically involved for real. And I often read, although I have never dug into the details, that the real-life relationship between Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn was a whole lot more, er, convenient than it looked on the screen.
Okay, two man teams are very important, but so what? Well, that is it really, they are very important. If you can have a good one in the centre of your life, lucky you, because your life will work a whole lot better and, with further luck, will be a whole lot more fun. But a little more than that can be said, and in this posting, I will end by saying how you can analyse the future prospects of an enterprise by asking a few two-man-team-related questions. Questions like: Is there a two man team at the top at all, or is the boss up there on his own? And, if there is a two man team bossing the enterprise, what sort of two man team is it?
Actually, those two questions merge into one. I recall reading something by the late great management thinker and writer Peter Drucker, to the effect that the only current measurement of the working of a big business enterprise that had any predictive power was the ratio of the top two salaries. The closer that ratio is to one, Drucker said, the better. The absolute level is unimportant. What matters is whether the top two guys are paid roughly the same, or amounts that are seriously different. If the top salary is way above the number two salary, watch out. The top guy probably thinks he is God, and there is no one around to tell him different. Expect hubristic catastrophe. If, on the other hand, the number two man gets three quarters of what the number one man gets, that probably means that number two man can look number one man in the eye and tell him, as and when, that he thinks whatever it is is daft. There is a degree of mutual respect in place. The load is being shared, and each tells the other the truth as he sees it.
Many books have been written that emphasise the similarities between Hitler and Stalin, but during the war, there was, I recall reading recently, one huge difference. Hitler never had a single respected number two figure, but Stalin did. Once again, I do not recall the name. Something-ishitskty or -ishinsky or whatever, but maybe quite different. He was the military chief of staff or some such thing, and Stalin talked everything through with him behind the scenes, and never at any point in the relationship had him shot. Churchill had his Alan Brooke, who, when push came to shove, he allowed to keep him on the rails. Roosevelt? I do not know, but I bet there was someone. Harry Hopkins was it? But the point is: Hitler had only insignificant flunkeys – Keitel, known as “Lackeitel”, lackey, was one of these creatures, I believe – who dared not tell him any truths at all.
To switch to our own time and our own excitements, and on the clear understanding that I am not calling either of them Adolf Hitler, is it too fanciful to speculate that the fortunes of the New Labour regime have moved from the Blair-Brown era, which, for all its faults and oddities, basically worked, to the Brown era, when the whole box of tricks caves in on top of everyone?
The first half of that equation will be very controversial here at Samizdata. If that Blair-Brown relationship “worked”, it did so in the sense that it achieved things that most of us here loathe. It presided over a relentless degradation of the quality of the public sector and an equally relentless increase in its cost. Between them, these two put in place, as Sean Gabb has been saying for a decade, the machinery of a police state. But, for as long as the two of them were in office, they got away with it, more or less. Politically, that means that their relationship worked. Meanwhile, an equally unlovely two-man team of another kind, involving Blair and Campbell, also worked successfully.
Now, politically, the Brown era is a disaster. And I think it entirely reasonable (a) to speculate that Brown’s basic problem is that he has no one beside him whose judgment he respects and who is doing anything resembling half the job, and (b) to predict that if Brown does manage to pull it together again and survive his current travails, it will be because he acquires someone to stand next to him who is able to look him in the eye and tell it like it is, and to share the load and the big decisions, not just about the country, but about how Brown conducts himself in his day-to-day politicking.
Maybe Brown’s understanding of his current place in the world will make such a relationship impossible, in which case, politically, he is now doomed.
Much more could be said about two-man teams, indeed I have a whole new gob of two-man-teamery already written, but I will leave that to another posting.