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Statecraft is a skill that needs to be learnt

Update: Liz Truss has just resigned as PM.

Lord (David) Frost is one of the sanest observers of the UK political scene. He’s in favour of the pro-growth, lower-tax agenda that Liz Truss has made much of. He writes more in sorrow than anger that the time has come for Ms Truss to stand aside.

His article includes the nugget of insight around how, in the very early 80s, Sir John Hoskyns, advisor to Margaret Thatcher in her Policy Unit, had set out in a memo a series of “stepping stones” for reform and change. To make changes on energy, tax, inflation, house planning, etc, requires a lot of patient preparatory work, to ensure that reforms don’t alienate the public on a large scale, or rattle the markets. This is akin to a pilot on a ship or plane having a passage plan before leaving port or taking off.

A serious government needs to have a worked-out idea of where it is going, and how it is going to do it, and have contingency plans. For example: when contemplating the need to take on Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, following the damaging strikes of the early 70s, Mrs T. put Nigel Lawson in charge of energy (before he became Chancellor in 1983) and he built up coal stocks so that the UK had a buffer of coal during the likely strike. This is like a general marshalling his forces intelligently before going into battle.

My impression is that Truss lacked people around her who knew how to guide her in such a way. And this speaks to what in my view is a deeper problem with much politics today in the West: the lack of strategic thinking and understanding of statecraft. Politicians sometimes study subjects such as “international affairs” or “politics” in liberal arts degrees and masters’ degrees in university. There is the Kennedy School of Government in the US , to give one case. But I wonder how much actual practical knowledge of how to get things done is learned. (If any readers have been to these places, let me know.) In fact, they may simply spend time wallowing in forms of ideology; they’d be better off reading Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, even if it appears to be a treatise on cynicism.

Perhaps the nature of those in public life has changed. Whatever else one might say of them, the old landed gentry and business class of people who tended to be Tories had an understanding of the processes of government and making change, although a lot of them were also capable of mass incompetence. On the Labour side, the experiences of unions and working in industry gave a certain realism and understanding of how tough life could be.

I worry that too few in public life have this sort of “ballast” in their lives. And we end up with people who don’t really know what they are doing.

Perhaps a more intractable problem is that so many people now assume that government, on the scale we now have it, is the “normal” state of affairs, and that anything taking us to a smaller State is terrifying. And it requires tremendous rhetorical skill, management capability and insight to show how a route to a saner state of affairs is possible, even exciting and enticing. This is doubly hard to do after a pandemic, and after when a large chunk of the professional middle classes had spent two years on furlough, watching TV and baking bread at home. And the sadder fact is that a lot of such people, although they will never admit it unless after several drinks, rather enjoyed the experience.

24 comments to Statecraft is a skill that needs to be learnt

  • I agree with pretty much all of that

  • Exasperated

    A good explanation for why government has been flailing almost everywhere in the West.

  • Exasperated

    I suppose this applies when politicians have spent their careers in the public sector or went directly into a corporate suite without any exposure to the nuts and bolts of what is needed to achieve productivity.

  • Paul Marks

    I think this post misses the point a bit.

    “The markets” are not really free markets at all, they are a handful of vast corporations that are backed by the funny money of the Central Banks (including the Bank of England).

    “The markets” did not care about truly vast government spending but tossed their toys out of the pram about fairly small tax reductions – “the markets” plainly are not about economics, they are about politics – they have a political agenda, as the IMF has made very clear – the “Equity” agenda and so on.

    “Statecraft”, “careful preparation” and so on will not work – not in an economic and political system as far gone as this.

    Liz Truss made concession after concession – she got rid of almost all the rolling back of Mr Sunak’s tax increases. But she was forced out anyway.

    Because this was always a political project – that is what “the markets” are now. A Cantillon Effect Western economy (and “governance”) – a small group with a political agenda.

    There is no free market anymore, the economic system in the Western World is no longer a free market, and it is unclear whether there is any democracy either.

  • Paul Marks

    “But if we condemn the system there will be terrible consequences”.

    This economic system, in the United Kingdom, the United States, and so on, is going to fall – whether we condemn it or not.

    Now it is time to stop thinking of “what will save the system” (that horse has bolted), now we have to think of what we replace this economic system (which is no way free market capitalism) – we must fight against the WEF (and others) who want to replace the present mess with even more “international governance”, “digital currency”, and general tyranny.

  • Stonyground

    “…and it is unclear whether there is any democracy either.”

    I don’t think that it is that unclear, to me it seems pretty clear that there isn’t. Britain is effectively a one party state, all three main parties are singing from the same hymn sheet, to qualify as a democracy voters at least need to have a choice.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Paul Marks:

    I think this post misses the point a bit. “The markets” are not really free markets at all, they are a handful of vast corporations that are backed by the funny money of the Central Banks (including the Bank of England).

    It is your explanation for everything, Paul (well, that and Frankfurt School). But even if we accept that the market economy is distorted – hardly a controversial point around here – there is still much to be gained by having politicians who are able to put one foot in front of the other without falling over. And that is my point: we need public figures able to understand the terrain they are in, to talk about it, etc. For example, why didn’t Truss, or Kwarteng, or others, in advance of making changes, talk openly about the problems caused by a decade of central bank fairy dust, or about how no major Western nation has run a budget surplus since the dotcom bubble? They could have done so, and prepared the ground, and explained what needed to be done.

    The alternative, by repeating how “rigged” everything is, is nothing more than a self-reinforcing counsel of despair. If that is the case, why go into politics at all? Take up gardening, or work on your golf swing.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Were politicians better in the past? Was government better in the past? Were things better when I peruse the pages of The Times a hundred years ago? They certainly weren’t for the Liberal Party which was tearing itself apart. The language they use is certainly a lot more dignified. Their speeches are a lot longer. Does new Prime Minister, Bonar Law have a plan? Insofar as he does it is to not be Labour and not be Lloyd George. A highly successful strategy as it turned out. Not that it mattered. He was dead a year later.

    I think the problem for those of us on the libertarian side of the aisle is that Margaret Thatcher truly was exceptional. You take her out of history and they’re all pretty much of a muchness. I include Churchill in this. “A wretched lot.” as Haig described them when he was winning the First World War and they were hedging their bets.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Were politicians better in the past? Was government better in the past? Were things better when I peruse the pages of The Times a hundred years ago?

    One big difference was that until 1914, the State did not loom large in our lives. So it was probably less necessary for policymakers to be really smart.

    I think there is a quote from JM Keynes noting that the main interaction of the UK citizen with the state at the time was with the Post Office. Income tax was low; there was not, yet, military conscription. The Bank of England’s capacity for mischief was constrained by the Gold Standard. The Welfare State was in embryo; many people were members of Friendly Societies and other forms of non-state insurance and mutual aid groups (which Lloyd George, in his bad way, helped undermine). I don’t think it is about my harking back to the “good old days”, and maybe the Thatcher decade did distort the picture a bit. But there did seem a bit more solidity and process to the politicians of the times. Maybe our increased familiarity with current politicians, social media, and so on, has bred a certain contempt for those in power that did not exist half a century or century ago.

    Churchill was a patchy performer as a minister, and his personal financial affairs would have barred him from office today. He was a tax evader on a fairly heroic scale.

  • slowjoe

    One difference is that since maybe 1990, politics has become a career (with apprentice-ships through media/pr/spad roles) as a relatively recent phenomenon:

    Tebbit: pilot
    Thatcher: lawyer
    Blair: lawyer
    Cameron: SPAD/CHQ guy
    Milliband: SPAD
    Johnson: journalist

    (Both Truss and May buck this trend: Truss was an accountant at Shell and Cable and Wireless then worked at Reform and May was a consultant to the BoE and APACS)

    In times past, there was also a sprinkling of pols with military experience.

    But another thing I think I detect is a lack of achievement in candidates. I didn’t rate anyone in the last several tory or labour leadership contests.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I believe that quote came from AJP Taylor. One of the reasons I started my perusals of The Times (more on that soon I hope) was to find out if that was true. I was surprised how much state there was and, of course, as you point out it was in the process of massive expansion.

    I like the non-ironic use of the word “heroic”.

  • John

    a large chunk of the professional middle classes had spent two years on furlough

    And look who is the bookies odds-on favourite. The man responsible for prolonging the furlough for months and months longer than was necessary, further wrecking the economy and ushering in a new “work from home” entitlement.

  • bobby b

    Was it Jefferson who admired the amateur government leader who came in from his fields for a few years to do his part in keeping his locality running smoothly, and then went back home? Didn’t he value integrity and intellect over experience in government?

    I always considered that to be a central pillar of libertarian thought – that we did better without the professional governing class deciding for us what we wanted. And now we want to go the other way?

    We have your sought-after professional class of government over here in the US. We call it the Deep State. The trains do run on time when they’re in charge.

  • Paul Marks

    J.P. – the market used to be distorted.

    It has gone way beyond distortion now.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I’d like to congratulate Paul Marks for his comment today at 12:54 pm. I do not necessarily agree with everything he wrote (I’ll have to think longer and harder about that) but for the first time i understand why he keeps going on about fiat money and the Cantillon Effect with such urgency.

  • Snorri Godhi

    We have your sought-after professional class of government over here in the US. We call it the Deep State. The trains do run on time when they’re in charge.

    Didn’t the expression “Deep State” originate in Turkey?
    It was in use in Italy decades ago.

    As for the trains running on time: not in California. In fact, the high-speed trains are not running at all.

  • Paul Marks

    J.P. – good point about Churchill and tax avoidance, there is also his large personal spending.

    I would have no problem with either – but Winston Churchill was an early supporter of the Progressive Income Tax – to support a tax and then do everything you can to personally avoid it, is not good.

    Churchill also made many speeches (as a Liberal) denouncing the wild spending of the rich – and as even his sympathetic biographer, Andrew Roberts, points out, Winston Churchill’s personal spending habits were far more lavish than those of the individuals he attacked.

    As a minister Churchill was actually quite good – if (IF) he was personally in charge of something, if he just had an idea and then left it (or was forced to leave it) to other people, it went to Hell.

    His ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough held that if was not in charge of something, totally in charge of it, then he was not interested in being involved at all. Winston Churchill should have followed that line – but he did NOT.

    bobby b – this is the thing.

    Bureaucratic government does-not-work – President Jefferson was dealing with a government when he was actually in charge, government no longer works that way.

    President Garfield was wrong – and Senator Conkling was right, but Garfield won (after his death) and America got a Civil Service.

    Just as we did here in Britian – but it is vastly worse now, as government and corporate bureaucracy.

    It is not a “theory” for me J.P. – I sit through meetings where I, and every other elected politician, have no power. The public have yet to grasp this – they still think that politicians make decisions and voting for different politicians will mean different decisions – yes SOMETIMES that is still true, but less and less.

    If you sit through endless meetings when you see how the government and corporate bureaucracy have merged, and it all about “social outreach teams”, and managers for this, and managers for that, and quotas for various sorts of people (gender, race, whatever it is) not, say, mending the roads (what the meeting is supposed to be about), then it is a bit irritating to be told “oh you are paranoid Paul – this is your answer to everything”.

    It is my “answer to everything” because I have shoved down my throat everyday J.P. – it is not theory, it is not abstract, it is my “lived experience” each day.

  • Paul Marks

    “The markets” did not care about endless wild government spending – including in 2022, for example not a peep out of them about the money for Ukraine (noble cause though that is).

    But as soon as there is the slightest effort to roll back tax increases – “the markets” throw their toys out of the pram.

    “The market may be a bit distorted, but it is still basically a capitalist market” – pull the other one, it has got bells on. “The markets” have a political agenda – and they have a political agenda because they are dominated by a few big Corporate players – look what has happened to the City of London, where are all the self-employed stockbrokers and stock jobbers, and the partnership banks – it is all corporations now (a handful of corporations), and they are backed by the Credit Money of the Bank of England.

    And America in no different – BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard, and the Credit Bubble banks, all backed by the Federal Reserve.

    The Corporate managers and the government officials are much the same – and have the same agenda.

    This is not capitalism. It is not “a bit distorted” – it is way beyond that now.

    Mancur Olson – The Rise and Decline of Nations.

    We are saturated with restrictive practices, and bureaucracy – government and corporate.

    And, yes, the Credit Money is a big part (indeed the biggest part) of all this.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Snorri – the Deep State is a term that was used in Turkey, oddly enough it could be argued that it was less bad (bad though it was) that what replaced it – that, I think, is the fear of JP. He knows this system is an abomination – but he fears that what replaces it will be even worse.

    Italy is also well known for its shadow politics – very bad shadow politics.

    Will this new lady, the leader of the “Brothers of Italy”, save Italy? Is saving Italy even possible at this point?

    The same is true of other Western nations – have we passed the point of no return?

    Still, we have to try – even if we end up like the Emperor Majorian (the would-be saviour of Western civilisation in the 5th century AD).

    It is better to have tried and failed, than not to try at all.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: considering that 20 years ago, in Italy, the Commies were the 2nd largest party and the crypto-fascists the 4th largest party; considering further that the 1st and 3rd largest parties (Christian Democrats and Socialists) were notorious for their corruption: I definitely believe that Italy has improved. Whether that can save Italy from a collapse of Western civilization, i cannot say.

    I do believe that Italians eat more wheat-based food than is good for their brains; but at least their diet has not gotten worse, which is more than can be said for the Brits and Americans.

    BTW Giorgia quotes the following in her speeches:
    Pope Wojtyla
    Yoram Hazony
    (In no particular order)

    Apparently, she is no heir to Mussolini: she is heir to Anglo-American conservatism.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Sorry: I should have written: 30 years ago.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Snorri – I agree with you that the efforts (of the “mainstream” media and other swine – and the word “swine” is justified) to paint the lady as a Fascist are lies – vicious-lies from people who have no moral core (none).

    However, as we both know, the task before those who would save the Western world is very great.

    Still no good complaining – we must do our best and hope for good fortune.

  • Paul Marks

    Sadly, the Prime Minister of Italy seems to be going along with E.U. demands – understandable (although regrettable) as Italy depends on E.U. money – which is created, from nothing, by the European Central Bank.

    So, for example, it appears that the flow of illegal immigrants will continue into Italy – as that is what the bankers and bureaucrats (there is no real difference between government bureaucracy and corporate bureaucracy – they have merged) want, so the Italian people are to be gradually destroyed. The social revolution of the 1960s onwards, a Western social revolution that was very much “top down” planned and executed by an elite and fed to ordinary people, has led to a collapse of the fertility rate – and the influx of illegals from Africa and the Middle East will, supposedly, replace the historic Western nations. As, supposedly, this new population will prove easier to rule (by the Corporate and Banker elite) than the historic nations.

    “Racist, racist, racist, Replacement Conspiracy Theory, racist, racist, racist” – that used to be chanted, but now the operation is so advanced there is little need to pretend it does not exist. Far from being a “racist” I rather hope that the new population of historic nations such as Italy do NOT prove to be subservient to the government and corporate elite – indeed I rather hope they get rid of the government and corporate elite.

    The same is true of the United States – I strongly suspect that the new increasingly Hispanic population of the United States will not prove subservient to the government and corporate elite.

    Why allow bankers to create money, from nothing, and use this money (before it loses its value) to buy up everything?

    In Latin American countries, such as Ecuador, when bankers did this, and they did, then ended up hanging from lamp posts.

    The government and corporate elite in the United States (and elsewhere) may regret getting rid of the old emotionally repressed population. I suspect that their plan is going to go horribly wrong for them.

  • Paul Marks

    As for “statecraft”.

    “The Markets” did not care about the massive increase in government spending in the United Kingdom budget – the “energy price cap”.

    “The Markets” only hated the rolling back of Mr Sunak’s tax increases.

    This is because “The Markets” are under the influence of vast corporations backed by the funny money of the Central Banks.

    So much for “statecraft”.