In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.


In or out – Cameron must get boot after referendum folly


David Cameron on the campaign trail with Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan

Whatever the result of this week’s vote on the United Kingdom’s place in Europe, one man will emerge from the ruins of this referendum with his reputation in tatters.

David Cameron, for it is he, will either have been responsible for the single biggest disaster in British politics since Sir Anthony Eden engineered the invasion of Suez; or he will be the man who put the future of the United Kingdom, and its place in the world, in mortal danger.

Win or lose, he is a busted flush. He will go down in history as a spineless and weak prime minister who chose the path of political opportunism rather than principle.

He has pretentions to be the leader of ‘One Nation’; instead he has opened up rifts in the body politic that will take generations to heal.

Cameron’s culpability is manifold. First off, he should not have conceded the referendum. Across the political spectrum there is broad consensus that we are better in Europe than out of it. His duty as prime minister – an office that transcends party – is to act for the greater good. He should have managed this critical political issue by building and maintaining that cross-party consensus. True he had the irritation of the unreconstructed hard right – a block of MPs who have consistently opposed Britain in Europe. But nothing will ever satisfy them. They are bullies and the only way to deal with bullies is to see them down.

Cameron, a party apparatchik for most of his adult life, chose to kick the hard right problem down the road rather than confront his opponents head on. In doing so he allowed them time to lay a trap, and into it he has naively walked.

His second mistake was to set too high the expectations of his renegotiation with Europe. He talked big, he made much of his own Euro-scepticism, he made much of his red lines. If he had come back with Angela Merkel’s head on a plate it would not have lived up to the promises he made. Even those of us who vehemently support continued membership of the European Union know that he came back with his nakedness covered by a fig leaf. His opponents see his embarrassment all too well.

And then we turn to the referendum debate itself. Here it was to be hoped that reason would prevail. The arguments for continued membership – social, economic and philosophical – are unassailable. After centuries of warfare, the European Union has provided an unprecedented period of peace and stability. Not only have countries flourished economically (even in the face of the recent financial crisis) but wealth has spread to areas – including in this country – that were incapable of lifting themselves out of poverty.

But few of those arguments have been made during the course of this debate. The political discussion has been more about the future of the Tory Party rather than the future of the United Kingdom in Europe. We have had lies, damned lies and Brexit statistics; the race card has been played in the most divisive way; blind prejudice has been presented as fact.

The referendum has been run like an extension of the Oxford Union – varsity chums ragging one another and scoring cheap debating points by being loose with the truth.

But this is not play-acting. The matters at stake here are the stuff of real life. Whether we will have enough jobs, whether we will have the resources for health and social care, whether we will be able to bring the collective will of hundreds of millions of Europeans to bear on the global challenges we face.

Yes Europe needs reformed; yes its leadership has become disconnected from the people they serve; yes it could do more to improve the lives of its citizens. But much the same could be said for Westminster; indeed much the same could be said for Stormont, and in Northern Ireland no-one is more than an hour-and-a-half from the centre of power.

But the best way of getting the best out of Europe is by being in it: making compelling arguments for change, building consensus, working with fellow Europeans to improve the lives of people in all our communities.

When he connived in the invasion of Suez Anthony Eden was a sick man and drugged up to the eyeballs. Cameron has no such excuse. The unintended consequences of his political gamesmanship could result in the return of the Irish border, the disintegration of the United Kingdom, and the decline and fall of the European dream – a bad day at the office indeed.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, Cameron should go.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on June 16 2016



Who slurs wins: dirty politics in Britain and America


Boris Johnston and the man he wants to replace David Cameron

As we have seen with the internecine warfare in the Tory Party over Brexit, often the bitterest political battles are within parties rather than between them. In the main, parties are broad coalitions, but even those focused on a single issue, or formed around an individual, have their moments.

You don’t have to look far for examples: patricide with the ejection of Ian Paisley as leader of the DUP, matricide when the Tories dispatched Maggie Thatcher. The SDLP in its prime was riven by tensions between its tribal chiefs: Hume, Mallon and McGrady; and as we have seen recently, it is not slow to dispatch a leader it believes is past his sell-by date.

In most political systems, much of this power play goes on behind the scenes; erupting only when party discipline breaks down or an individual loses the run of him or herself and goes public – Boris Johnston’s Brexit buffoonery is a case in point.

If the stakes were not so high, the Blue-on-Blue Brexit battle would be entertaining. There’s some entertainment to be had in hearing members of the Government rubbishing its own policies, turning on their Prime Minister, and deriding the competence of bodies such as the Treasury and the Bank of England.

These ghosts will come back to haunt them when the vote is passed.

Winston Churchill, who knew the value of political insurrection, once observed: “The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you.” Jeremy Corbyn would agree with that.

In Britain and Ireland these tensions bubble to the surface like magma oozing out of an active volcano, with the occasional eruption. The United States does things differently.

It has institutionalised internecine political warfare with the primary elections system – the blooding of presidential candidates by their own parties. The primaries have dominated US politics for the past 18 months or so. We still have to get through the conventions before the general election proper begins – but we now have a clear idea about who will be battling for the presidency.

The American system is designed to introduce a degree of paralysis into the body politic. Members of the House of Representatives go before the voters every two years; the President’s powers are checked by Congress and the Supreme Court; and even a two-term president, such as Obama, becomes a lame duck once the primaries begin and the focus shifts to the next holder of the office.

The primaries are always been a blood sport; but this time round the level of invective has been particularly unedifying. It has brought the political process into disrepute.

Billionaire Donald Trump’s rise has shocked the Republican establishment, and his party ‘colleagues’ have been unsparing in their condemnation of his racist and misogynistic comments. Like the Brexiteers he has not been afraid of twisting the truth to suit his narrow political ends.

Hilary Clinton, unquestionably one of the best-qualified candidates to challenge for the presidency, has also had her own challenges with the doggedly determined opposition of Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders has played the anti-establishment card, and his campaign has done all it can to hole Hilary below the waterline.

But this week Clinton secured her grip on the nomination. That in itself is a milestone. She is the first woman with a credible chance of becoming President. But Sanders and his supporters continue to undermine her candidacy, to such a degree that you would imagine they’d prefer to see Trump in the White House.

Politics is a rough and dirty trade. Not for the faint-hearted.

Those in favour of the system say it tests the candidates for the ordeal to come. Those who cannot stand the heat are weeded out; political arguments are honed, and the electorate gets a chance to ‘test’ the candidates to destruction.

That is all well and good. But a system that allows an individual like Trump to rise to the surface must be deeply suspect, as is an electoral process that sends into the final phase of a campaign, two candidates handicapped by wounds inflicted by their ‘own’ side.

On the Democrat side, the primaries have ensured the right result. Clinton is a class act, with all the potential of being a first-class president.

But the Republicans have failed their country by their inability to contain a populist demagogue, worse they have failed those of us who have no vote in the election, but who will be directly affected by the decision made in the coming November elections.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on June 9 2016

Stop the world – I want to get off


Donald Trump: Only in America could you attack the elite by voting for a billionaire

One of my favourite sayings is the observation that ‘it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the government always gets in’. The history of democracy is one of constant disappointment that votes for change at the ballot box result in more of the same once people get into power.

The classic example of modern times is the election of New Labour in 1997. Tony Blair swept to power on a tide of enthusiasm, and left office mired in scandal. Whatever his achievements in Ireland he will never shake off his association with a discredited American president and the shameful war in Iraq.

People here have seen precious little benefit from the shift to devolved powers. Chameleon like, the civil service has adapted to its new masters; while on the ground there is little evidence of a step-change in the quality of education, the delivery of an effective health system, or the establishment of an economy capable of addressing poverty and disadvantage.

Frustration with politics is showing itself across the globe. For now, the anti-establishment candidates for the US Presidency are in the ascendant. Donald Trump, the multi-billionaire, swept to victory in the New Hampshire Primary. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton – former first lady and US secretary of state – had her progress to the White House checked by Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders.

Socialist is a trigger word in a United States that has never really got over McCarthyism. Although Sanders is not a socialist in terms we would know – he’d sit comfortably with the centre left here – his success is a kick in the teeth for the establishment.

In the United Kingdom austerity, and a sense of injustice that the bankers got away with the scandals that brought it about, has also fuelled the anti-establishment vote. UKIP’s jingoistic populism generated some four million votes at the last general election. Labour, still toxic after Blair and Brown, failed to break the Tory grip on power. But the subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader – with the attendant surge in Labour membership – is another challenge to the status quo.

The chattering classes like to joke about the prospects of a Trump presidency and a Corbyn premiership. But more worrying is the prospect of Trump in the White House and Cameron in Number 10. As Bush-Blair demonstrated, British prime ministers need a close association with the United States to maintain their prestige.

Corbyn has yet to prove he has the capacity to reach beyond his core support. If he does, and that requires an enormous stretch of the imagination, he has the spectre of Alexis Tsipras to contend with. Elected by the Greeks on a massive anti-austerity vote, he has had to kow-tow to Greek’s international bankers and implement the very austerity he was elected to overturn.

If my “the government always gets in” theory holds water, it should not matter if Trump wins through. There should be enough checks and balances in the system to limit any damage he might do. But there is always the exception that proves a rule. And Trump might well be it.

We are a long way from the final presidential showdown, and it is all too easy to over-emphasise the importance of a single primary campaign. President Trump is still a nightmare rather than a reality. But his current ascendancy – alongside that of Sanders, Corbyn, the SNP in Scotland, and the leftist Potemos movement in Spain, among others – is a clear signal that conventional politics is no longer fit for purpose.

It might seem perverse that Americans are turning to a multi-billionaire property developer to challenge the ‘elite’ in Washington, but that’s the crazy world we are living in today.

Democracy is a blunt instrument. Ordinary voters don’t have many ways to influence the decision-making process, and we only have the undivided attention of those who govern us every four or five years.

We are at a stage in human history when there is a real desire for change, and a recognition that we cannot go on the way we are going.

We put our faith in the market and in materialism. But it has fallen short.

Consumerism does not bring us happiness and is not sustainable. The earth’s resources are being depleted, wealth is increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer people, the world is being torn apart by conflict – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt… the list goes on.

We know from history what happens when politics fails. Nature abhors a vacuum, and totalitarianism flourishes. Stop the world! I want to get off.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on February 12 2016

The Hubris Syndrome and how to avoid it


Hail Caesar: Men willingly believe what they wish to be true

I have just finished reading the final novel in Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Dictator takes us through the decline and fall of the Roman Republic. It was destroyed by the personal ambition of three men Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, and the inadequacy of those who saw themselves as defenders of the Republic: among them, it must be said, Harris’s hero Cicero himself.

As an exercise in the study of failed leadership, Harris’s books are masterful. Enoch Powell, himself a noted classicist (he was a professor of Greek), once noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Powell’s injudicious vision of foaming rivers of blood on the streets of Britain, in a speech on immigration, was itself a reference to ancient Rome. The speech was enough to cut off his ministerial ambitions, midstream, but at an unhappy juncture; and it shaped history’s view of him as a racist. Powell’s political career petered out on the fringes of British politics, as an unhappy adjunct Ulster Unionist MP.

John F Kennedy is the perfect illustration of Powell’s quote. Assassination ensured he will forever be the knight in shining armour at the Court of Camelot – even though we now know more about his many flaws.

Dr David Owen, the self-destructive British politician, knows a thing or two about the pursuit and execution of power. In reflective mood he penned a book on political leadership called The Hubris Syndrome. It was a subject he returned to in March 2015 in a speech at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Speaking of his research with Professor Jonathan Davidson of Duke University, he said: “We saw Hubris Syndrome as including a narcissistic propensity to see the world as an arena to exercise power and seek glory; exaggerated self-belief bordering on a sense of omnipotence, and accountability only to a ‘higher court’ such as history or God.”

Hubris does not only affect statesmen and women. I used to joke that all leaders go mad in the end. This indeed is one of the themes in Harris’s Dictator which charts the growing ‘madness’ of Julius Caesar – a general who declared himself a god.


David Owen: The Hubris Syndrome

In their studies, Owen and Davidson have proved that my quip – based it must be said on experience – has a basis in fact. (For those of you who suspect yourselves or others of suffering from the syndrome, Owen helpfully provides a table of 14 symptoms. There’s a link below. I suspect I suffer from a couple myself, but that is another story.

Owen told the meeting: “Hubris is an occupational hazard for political, military and business leaders. Having focused over the last decade on hubris in politicians today I am more concerned about hubris in business.”

He is right to be worried about business. Businesses are the new nation states – many indeed have wealth greater than sovereign nations. It would be easy enough to list examples of hubristic behaviour by business leaders – Enron, BP, RBS (recently rebranded as a humbled lower case rbs) and more recently Volkswagen, provide rich sources for case studies.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is easy to identify those moments where a different decision or approach might have saved an individual (as in the case of Margaret Thatcher), a corporation in the shape of Fred Goodwin’s RBS, or a great republic such as the Roman one so beloved of Cicero.

I have some sympathy for those who ‘go mad in the end’. Leadership is a lonely place, and such is the environment there that paranoia can flourish. One of Owen’s 14 symptoms is “loss of contact with reality, often associated with progressive isolation”.

I was once involved in the recruitment process for the leader of a large multi-million pound organisation. One of the candidates was rejected during the process on the basis that he was already displaying some of the signs of ‘madness’ of high office. The successful candidate was affable, rooted and a listener. When I heard that, less than a year after assuming office, a lock had been added to the executive suite, I knew the decline had set in.

For the leader, the lock provided the comfort of security. But for the organisation it sent out a completely different message. Even the leader’s closest lieutenants could not get in without assistance. At a stroke credibility was undermined; a potentially glittering career there collapsed in an atmosphere of benign disrespect; and the organisation’s progress was stemmed.

There are ways of minimising the impact of a leader who has become a loose cannon. But corporate governance systems need to be sound, and that is not always the case. There’s much to be said for fixed terms – in business and in government. The limitation on the length of a presidency in the United States is one of the real strengths of its democratic system; though, as Vladimir Putin has demonstrated in Russia, the resourceful ‘despot’ can find ways around fixed terms.

You never quite know how anyone is going to behave until they get into power. Every leader is presented with a unique set of circumstances, and reacts differently. Each is human, and will respond to events in the way humans do – not always properly. But it is not the mistakes that are important, it is how they are dealt with.

Here is my checklist to avoid being affected by the Hubris Syndrome (or at least being able to mitigate its effects).

  1. Surround yourself by people who are better than you, but remember you are the one responsible for making decisions
  2. Never believe your own propaganda – this is the surest road to ruin. Never feel threatened by the truth
  3. Find people you can trust, use them to ‘think aloud’ to, listen to their advice
  4. Don’t be put off making the right decision because of what others might think
  5. Be human: talk to your people, eat in the staff canteen, take public transport
  6. You need your friends more than ever; cling to them like a drowning man clutching a floating plank
  7. Don’t do anything you would not want to see revealed on the front page of a newspaper
  8. Respect those you are accountable to, and those you are responsible for
  9. Recognise that the ends do not always justify the means
  10. Remember – it’s not all about you.
  • Dr David Owen’s speech to the Royal Society of Physicians, and his symptoms’ checklist can be accessed here.