Still Not My Chums
Following on from last week’s review of ‘Chums’ by Simon Kuper, it feels like there is enough material from the book to justify another blog. Above all, I need to reinforce what I took to be the key message, which is that the people who have been in charge of running our country for the last generation are mostly people who chose a political career not so that they could help ordinary people and make things better for all, but rather to help themselves and, as the title of the book suggests, their chums.
It may never be possible for me to forgive Dominic Cummings for much of what he has done in recent years, but I increasingly find myself, if not sympathetic towards him, at least prepared to listen to him – though I fear this may be more a case of my enemy’s enemy being my friend than through any deeper intellectual attachment. For example, I found it hard to disagree when he said that we should stop selecting our political leaders from a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as a spin doctor.
When times are good, which they were for many at the turn of the century, it is probably not too much of an issue if our political masters are strong on style and weak on substance. As Oliver Burkeman highlights in his book ‘Four Thousand Weeks’, to which I will return next week, too many of us spend years treating our life as a dress rehearsal on the rationale that what we are doing, for the time being, is acquiring the skills and experience that will permit us to assume authoritative control of things later on. Meanwhile, others take control from the outset without bothering with the stages in between and, usually, without any credible justification for doing so.
But, Burkeman says, he sometimes thinks of his journey through adulthood to date as one of incrementally discovering the truth that there is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone is not just winging it, all the time. Growing up, he assumed that the newspaper on the breakfast table must be assembled by people who truly knew what they were doing. Then he got a job at a newspaper.
Unconsciously, he continues, he transferred his assumptions of competence elsewhere, including to people who worked in government. But then he got to know a few people who did – and who would admit, after a couple of drinks, that their jobs involved staggering from crisis to crisis, inventing plausible-sounding policies in the backs of cars en route to the press conferences at which those policies had to be announced. If you have ever watched ‘The Thick of It’, you will know exactly what he is talking about.
We will leave Burkeman for the time being telling us that, even then, he found himself assuming that this might all be explained as a manifestation of the perverse pride that British people sometimes take in being shamblingly mediocre. Then he moved to America – where, it turns out, everyone is winging it, too. Political developments in the years since have only made it clearer that the people in charge have no more command over world events than the rest of us do. We probably ought to be worried by this, but I guess we are all expounding too much effort on covering up the fact that we are all winging it ourselves to take the time to scrutinise things properly.
All of which perhaps adds weight to Kuper’s argument that when ruptures hit Britain in 2015/16, the leaders of the unified establishment of the Cameron era were not equipped to handle them. ‘Politics, to them, is the incremental refinement of the mixed economy in a world where most people agree on most things,’ wrote the FT’s Janan Ganesh. But these people were ‘unprepared for the surge in Euroscepticism, nativism, violent fanaticism and great power rivalry’. During the Brexit referendum, wrote Ganesh, they looked ‘like lab technicians sent to war’.
One of the points that has really stayed with me from my reading of ‘Chums’ was when the author compared David Cameron's calling of the referendum in 2016 to Tony Blair's decision to fight in Iraq. He says that both men at a fateful moment were at the peak of their powers: forty-nine years old, winners of two straight elections, the prime ministership apparently theirs for as long as they wanted it. All their lives they had confounded the whingers.
Almost everything they had ever touched had turned to gold. When the issues that would destroy each of their reputations came up, neither man had thought very hard about it, but then they had learned in life that they didn't need to: their Oxford rhetorical skills always carried them through. The establishment would surely unite behind them, as it traditionally did on matters of war and EU membership.
It is hard to argue with Kuper’s analysis of Brexit, which he says has been billed as an anti-elitist revolt, but which more precisely was an anti-elitist revolt led by an elite: a coup by one set of Oxford public school boys against another, backed by an Australian Oxford public schoolboy media magnate masquerading as an anti-elitist. Indeed, many voters were willing to entrust Vote Leave with the national future precisely because it was led by an elite.
Returning to the Oxford Union, Kuper says that Boris Johnson in particular fought the referendum as if it were a university debate, with funny and almost substance-free hot air. In England, he notes, humour is used to cut off conversations when they threaten to achieve emotional depth or to get boring or technical. Hence Johnson's famous line on leaving the EU while keeping the benefits of its single market: ‘My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.’
Johnson’s displays of eccentricity – which were in fact markers of his upper-class entitlement to break social codes – were misread by many ordinary Britons as signs of authenticity. The hair made him and, by extension, Brexit seem like a harmless joke. He was offering a camp English version of grimmer populist movements elsewhere. He also had a gift for projecting the hedonistic optimism that he felt about his own life on to the entire country. The ‘very, very bright future’ that he saw for post-Brexit Britain applied in spades to himself. And this, of course, is one of the key reasons why he is no longer prime minister and why, in the opinion of many, we find ourselves in such a mess.
There will, however, never be any admission of failure, any apology or contrition. We will instead continue to be told of the myriad opportunities available to us, the bright economic uplands and the happiness of the fish now that they know they are in British waters. Kuper quotes George Orwell, who said: ‘Every great social movement, every war, every revolution, every political programme, however edifying and Utopian, really has behind it the ambitions of some sectional group which is out to grab power for itself,’ an analysis with which sadly I find I cannot disagree.