Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 7 May 2019

Why are we governed by incompetents?

In 2016 Boris Johnson and Michael Gove narrowly won the referendum on EU membership. It turned out they had no idea how to turn their victory into a concrete policy. They had dismissed every potential difficulty as just more ‘Project Fear’, and it became clear they were not just doing this just because it was effective rhetoric. They had not throught through any of the major problems that implementing Brexit would create. They looked rather shocked when they won, realising that these problems airily dismissed would now have to be resolved.

Cameron resigned, and the Conservative party needed to choose a new Prime Minister whose main preoccupation would be negotiating the terms of our exit. Their choice was Theresa May, who was known from her previous job as being non-collegiate, slow to adapt but obstinate in the views she held. These were almost the exact opposite of the qualities needed in any negotiation with a more powerful neighbour. Perhaps knowing this, she chose David Davis to handle the details of negotiation, a man who had the charm that May lacked but who had no interest in the details, in part because he clung on to the belief that the EU would cave at the last minute.

If we cross the Atlantic, then the story is the same but more so. The hard part is thinking about an issue or decision where Donald Trump has displayed any competence. Most recently he tried and failed to appoint two people, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, to the board of the central bank, where their main qualifications were, respectively, that their predictions were always wrong, and they ran a Pizza company.

You could perhaps put all this incompetence down to the exceptional peculiarities of Brexit and Trump. But May also appointed as Northern Irish secretary someone who didn’t realise voters there voted along sectarian lines. Chris Grayling, after his disastrous privatisation of the probation service, then awarded a Ferry contract to a company that had no ferries, and so on. A key campaign theme of the Republican party in 2016 was to repeal Obamacare, but once Trump was elected and they had control of Congress it turned out they had no idea what to replace it with.

Nor did this incompetency suddenly emerge out of thin air in 2016. David Cameron implemented a policy of cutting public spending in the middle of the worst recession since WWII, leading to the slowest recovery in centuries. He allowed his minister for health to implement a fundamental reorganisation of the NHS that turned out to be a disaster, at the same time as his austerity policy starved the service of funds. Of course it was also David Cameron who made a commitment to hold the EU referendum in the first place under terms that were most favourable to the Leave side. .

Simon Kuper, in a brilliant article in the Financial Times, has an interesting explanation for this epidemic of incompetence. He writes how leaders like Macmillan, George HW Bush or Clement Attlee had their formative experiences in fighting WWII, while Lyndon B Johnson, Bill Clinton, and John Major had a visceral experience: of poverty. They knew in their bones that government mattered. He goes on
“But both countries have now fallen into the hands of well-off baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 - the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history. These people had no formative experiences, only TV shows. They never expected anything awful or unknown to happen. They went into politics mostly for kicks.”

I’m sure Kuper is right that if our current leaders had had the strong formative experience of living with poverty or living through WWII their behaviour would have been different. In particular they might have thought twice about using populist tropes like ‘the will of the people’. But surely being ‘the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history might be a necessary but not sufficient condition for being incompetent.

An interesting example here is Tony Blair The son of a barrister, he attended a school in Edinburgh that is sometimes described as Scotland’s Eton *** and went to Oxford University. Together with Gordon Brown he presided over an administration that championed evidence-based policy. A clear example was the decision in 2003 not to enter the Euro. The Treasury spent a year researching the pros and cons of joining the Euro, consulting widely with outside experts. The 18 background studies that effort produced are excellent examples of literature reviews or, in some cases, applied research. Although Blair was predisposed to favour entry, he was content to allow the evidence the Treasury produced to persuade him not to join.

There is of course one glaring exception to this record, and that is Iraq. The war was the idea of Bush Jr, and it was a nonsensical response to 9/11. Most of the evidence at the time suggested that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and that although the war could be won keeping the subsequent peace would be very difficult. Blair followed Bush because of a simple but tragically incorrect idea, that the close UK-US alliance had to be preserved at all costs. He ignored domestic advice about the problems any post-war period would create.

The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 was not flawless by any means, but it terms of competence it is clearly better than what came later. It is hard not to see that evidence based policy protects you from many, but not all, policy mistakes. Cameron made the commitment to a referendum in 2013 because the political imperative was to stop the rise of UKIP and possible defections from the party. The evidence were opinion polls at the time, which suggested that Leave could easily win. At a deeper level he should have realised the influence a very pro-Brexit press could have, and also that his own immigration missed targets and the rhetoric that he himself had used to justify them would beat economic forecasts in voters minds..

An ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence. Indeed most right wing think tanks are designed to turn the ideology of neoliberalism into policy based evidence. It was this ideology that led to austerity, the failed health reforms and the privatisation of the probation service. It also played a role in Brexit, with many of its protagonists dreaming of a UK free from regulations on workers rights and the environment. It is why most of the recent examples of incompetence come from the political right.

A pluralist democracy has checks and balances in part to guard against incompetence by a government or ministers. That is one reason why Trump and the Brexiters so often attack elements of a pluralist democracy. The ultimate check on incompetence should be democracy itself: incompetent politicians are thrown out. But when a large part of the media encourage rather than expose acts of incompetence, and the non-partisan media treat knowledge as just another opinion, that safegurd against persistent incompetence is put in danger.

Postscript 08/05/19 It has been pointed out to me that at the age of 10, Blair's father had a stroke and lost the power of speech for over 2 years, meaning he could not work and his family fell on hard times. So here too Kuper's point may apply.


  1. MacMillan and Atlee fought in world war one, which I'm sure you know. But excellent article.

  2. I agree with most points in the article but the 1946-54 reference is incorrect. We (I was born in 46) knew poverty and difficult times but these experiences reinforced the strong personal and community values our parents had after the war. I think those born in the mid 50s and beyond were the ones who were more likely to have the 'golden without values' approach to life and politics. Who knows?

  3. I think it was a Prussian general who said that his officers could be defined according to two axes: intelligent or stupid; and lazy or industrious.

    If an officer was both intelligent and industrious, he was ideal for a key position at or near the front lines. If he was intelligent and lazy, he'sd be good for supply ... his laziness would lead him to find the most expedient ways to accomplish the tasks before him.

    If he were stupid and lazy, that actually wasn't too much of a problem: some post could be found where he couldn't do much harm, and he'd be content there.

    The real problem officers were those who were stupid but industrious, whose incompetence could not easily be confined.

    And those sorts of people are unfortunately the ones who have been ascendant in the English-speaking world. Kuper is likely correct that the lack of a real formative crisis that would have weeded them out is largely responsible.

    I would add to that that there is a strong background of ignorance in all of us; there is really too much going on for anyone to understand very much of it all. Pair that with the strong human tendency to believe what is most favorable for us in the face of uncertainty -- a tendency that also might have been cropped by a formative crisis -- and it is very easy for an industrious idiot to win people over with sweet-sounding idiocies ... such as that any problems they have are not due to personal failings or complicated systematic inefficiencies, but rather due to wicked foreigners cheating at trade and immigration, which a tariff or two and a border wall would readily fix.

    1. That guy was the German officer Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord
      (1878-1943). One version of his classification is:

      "I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent -- their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy -- they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent -- he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief."


  4. "The evidence were opinion polls at the time, which suggested that Leave could easily win."
    ... You mean Remain, could easily win

  5. A great deal of this incompetence is the result of a citizenry that has never been properly or thoroughly educated to participate in the democracy. Incompetent citizens choose incompetent politicians to lead.

  6. For the same reason you decided that you shouldnt have to sit in parliament with your enemies and represent yourself as a political equal when you can give that to someone else and not be accountable.

  7. Is it not very recent for those who govern us to come from any family but the "luckiest" in the nation, to be born to wealth a privilege? Some pretty competent people came from such families. It's a really new thing for leaders to come from families that would need "luck" to know any prosperity.

  8. Simon:
    The folks you cite in your blog on the privileged boomer generation do not actually characterize that generation. Many boomers in the US fought for freedom of speech and civil rights in the 60s, tried to stop the Vietnam War, and worked in a large variety of social justice programs. These people were not privileged as were Tony Blair, George W. Bush, etc. Moreover, among those who experienced poverty, Lyndon Johnson kept the Vietnam war going when he knew it was a horrible mistake that was destroying both Vietnamese and a very large number of disadvantaged youth who comprised the US draftees. Bill Clinton was, at best, ideologically, a neo-conservative who destroyed the social safety net (welfare) in the US and saw to it that the 1932 Glass-Steagall Act, which kept US banks from engaging in market speculation, was repealed (doubtless, ultimately contributing to a world-wide depression 2007-2009--leading to the massive banking and investment bailout in the US). It is too easy to look at the stock-jobbers on Wall Street and blame their greed while ignoring the older generation from WWII and the Korean War who had a large hand in creating the basis for the economic crisis.
    It would be delightful if there were correct, monochromatic explanations for greed, arrogance and stupidity -- but these all-too-human characteristics thrive across both class lines and generations
    and have done so for quite some time.

  9. One simple answer (perhaps too simplistic, I realize) would be because we elect incompetents.

  10. Dear Mr. Wren-Lewis, What is arguably the most glaring imcompetence by David Cameron, could be mentioned here too: Three times, before traveling to Brussels, Cameron announced that he would convince the continentals to scrap the political aspects of the EU. Cameron was totally blind to reality in expecting Brussels to scrap what it has sterenuously succeeded in building over decades of very difficult negotiations. Then, coming home empty handed three times, he blamed Brussels every time! He thus prepared the Britisch electorate for angrily voting Brexit. Would you agree with this? With respect, Edouard Prisse, the Netherlands.

  11. Tony Blair was a horrid, ideological prime minister and your undermine your fine case by excusing Blair.

  12. "an ideology is a collection of ideas that can form a political imperative that overrides evidence." Truer words were never spoken! Evidence-based thinking is always in jeopardy with this goofy species. That's why "Faith" is on the offensive in the red states. And the mere sight of Boris Johnson gives me the willies."Drool, Britannia"...

  13. I can think of one exception: Franklin D. Roosevelt, born into wealth and privilege, who nevertheless pursued enlightened policies to reinvigorate the US economy during its greatest depression. In general, though, spoiled frat boys cannot relate to life down where rubber meets the road.

  14. Well said. Trumps's assaults on the very cornerstones of the American system of governance are sometimes amusing, sometimes ridiculous, but always damaging. We here can but hope that the judiciary will restore the balance between the stonewalling of the executive and the activism of the legislature (or at least the House).

  15. Professor Wren-Lewis is clear and direct in his argument. I would like to add only the points that 1) we are governed by incompetents because we vote them in, and not for their critical thinking skills but for more personal, visceral reasons having to do with personal experience and ideology; and 2) Most politicians are competent in the skill of political maneuvering, and consider their top priority to keep the party in power. This seems to me to be a standard framework when issues become too complicated and technical for easy decision-making. And most voters in my experience are desperately in need of calm waters when it comes to political and social patterns. So ultimately it is we the voters who bring in the incompetence as it looks less stressful than the murky depths of negotiating our future.

  16. This is a well reasoned piece. Worth reading and understanding to make sense of the craziness all around

  17. Nearly every time a Tory politician appears on radio or TV I ask myself: 'Have we really sunk quite so low?' Clearly we have, and your and Simon Kuper's excellent pieces explain why. But as someone who tried (and entirely failed) to influence government media policy in the Blair years, I would respectfully suggest that what the Blair governments increasingly favoured was policy-based evidence.

  18. Thank you for a well-written insight. However, as one of the 'unluckiest' members of the luckiest generation, I feel compelled to remind you that the intellectual mediocrity of our politicians here in the USA is a constitutional right.

  19. Why not just say flatly the obvious: this incompetence keeps coming from the right. Blair's big screw up was when he went along with the right. Younger conservatives keep showing the same ideological disinterest in facts and results as their elders, so it isn't a baby boomer trait, it's a conservative one.

  20. Have you read "The Blunders of our Governments" (2013, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe)?

    It tries to understand why our government makes so many crass blunders. (It distinguishes a blunder from a mistake in that a blunder is easily foreseeable and avoidable.)

    The concluded in 2013 that the government was likely to keep making blunders. I think we can all agree they were right!

  21. What do the US and UK have in common that might explain their disdain for competence and attraction for incompetents? Rupert Murdoch.

  22. Thanks, Professor, from across the pond. I happen to agree with your analysis this morning. I would ask that you next address the question: Is it possible that the incompetents are merely camoflauge installed to dominate public discourse. Does not directing attention of the media and public to watching Trump and the Brexiteers actually serve powerful interests of narrow, largely wealthy interest groups aligned on the right?Does drawing attention to saving us from these incompetents free these agents to go about further entrenching their powers and serving their own, fairly clear, narrow interests to the detriment of the larger public? In my view, these would include: gathering licenses for private interests to exploit natural resources; deferring action to constrain burning of fossil fuel reserves where immense proceeds are directed to private coffers; accumulation and concentration of productive assets; selective dismantling of regulatory agencies without acts of Congress in the U.S.; control of government contracts; religion interest groups seeking to dominate and impede individual rights deemed to fall outside their tolerances; and a variety of minor measures (gun rights and every issue pushed by think tanks on the right in the U.S.) serving the entrenched agents of power. I suggest that elevating incompetents may be an intentional strategy.

  23. ... and you think Corbyn will be any better?

    From Wikipedia ..

    When Corbyn was seven years old, the family moved to Pave Lane in Shropshire, where his father bought Yew Tree Manor, a 17th-century country house which was once part of the Duke of Sutherland's Lilleshall estate.

    Corbyn was educated at Castle House School, an independent preparatory school near Newport, Shropshire, before attending Adams' Grammar School as a day student.

  24. [I sent this impressive blog post to my 30+ son, who agreed with it, but added these thoughts:] "I think there are at least three missing pieces. The first is the influence of concentrated wealth in politics, which results in policies that favor politically powerful or valuable constituencies at the expense of the public interest. The second is the endemic dishonesty of the right, both in the US and the UK, as conservatives seem to have formed a transatlantic consensus that systematically lying about one's own policy preferences is a perfectly acceptable way to pass an agenda that would be toxically unpopular if it were expressed candidly. The third is the generational divide that underpins support for both Trump and Brexit (not to mention the Iraq war), as elderly voters have proven highly susceptible to campaigns based on misinformation and fearmongering, and conservative media have learned to exploit their psychological vulnerabilities like Hannibal Lecter chatting up his cellmates. Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann paint an especially grim picture of the latter phenomenon in a very recent article in the Atlantic [link removed by Patricia], presenting data that suggest Fox-addled oldsters have yet to reach the zenith of their power in the GOP. Still, there's reason for hope, as the pursuit of short-term political gain appears to be lashing conservative ideology to a demographic sinking ship."


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