Has Britain (or indeed Ireland) got Government Talent?

I was struck by the new French President speaking about those to be recruited to his government:

I will choose them for their experience, their competence, what they have done and not for what they represent or their political weight…

Gosh. There’s a thought. Leaving aside whether you think he is a good or bad thing, what a contrast this is to Westminster/Whitehall and even Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont (when it is actually up and running).

What will we get after our election: ministers chosen from a pool of c.350 MPs, with a prime minister looking first for intra-party political balance, then as a reward for loyalty, with competence and relevant experience secondary.

During the last Labour government, 9 pensions ministers came and went over 13 years. None had any experience of pensions. This is typical.

Macron continues:

We need to do away with this political class, which is all too often made of men over 50 who never had a proper job,” promising that his 577 parliamentary candidates will be half women and half political newcomers.

What skills are our MPs bringing to ministerial jobs? They are first and foremost politicians adept at all the wheeling and dealing needed to secure a seat, to be noticed by the media, to acquire personal influence in the Commons, and to progress a policy.

No track record of bringing about beneficial change on the ground is required. Macron again:

They (people in government) will be people who are important mayors, regional or general council presidents; people who have sometimes been ministers, but who do things and who will be able to run an administration and conduct a public policy.

Built into the French system is effectively a ministerial apprenticeship scheme. Executive mayors have full responsibility for the 107 departments plus the local councils, directly accountable to the area electorate.

One of their great benefits is the proving ground provided for these individuals to show what they can do.

These roles are about getting things done, achieving beneficial change on the ground, and not about politicising some philosophy into a grand policy with its most likely result being either no effect or unintended consequences.

The greater role of government these days is about running stuff, like schools or health services or trains. This is not about high politics or some throwback ideology, but about competent delivery.

Emmanuel Macron will call on a far larger and richer pool of talent than Theresa May (assuming her election). But does a bigger pool matter? Yes. The larger the pool, the greater the available quality.

I learnt this many years ago when my firm became big on diversity. Why? Had a global accounting and consulting firm at the centre of modern capitalism suddenly got ethics? No, it was the business case.

PwC’s success is based almost entirely on the quality and quantity of its people. Competition for the top students and other recruits is fierce.

Women, people of different races, with disabilities, or sex changes are just as capable of being fine accountants and consultants as white men. Diversity tripled our talent pool and the number of high-quality people we could recruit.

Why can’t UK government do a Macron? That’s very simple to answer: because of our Constitution, such as it is. It ensures that the competence pool for government is strictly limited. How so?

Well, first, executive mayors in our system are few. Although they are increasing, the people flow is in reverse! Westminster has a talent drain, as politicians leave to become local government executive mayors, where they can actually do something.

Second, our system limits a government’s talent pool to the winning party – with the odd exception.

Third, good old First Past The Post limits the effective competition for government to two parties only. Like any market, the fewer the competitors the lower the standards.

Over in France, for the first time since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1959, neither of the two presidential candidates in the run-off was from the historically dominant parties. The duopoly has been broken – the supply of competence increased.

Couldn’t happen in Westminister.

Indeed, at the current rate of no-change, we face the prospect of another century of the same old Labour/Conservative politics, trapped by FPTP, with no way out of continuing governmental decline, and without the public understanding of the criticality of a constitution to performance, nor the revolutionary tradition to demand change.

Slow death.

The hope must be that as frustration grows, more will look beyond today’s retro arguments and a different politics will emerge. This would not be defined by the old labels of left or right, public or private, progressive or conservative, or any other banal either/or.

Whilst not used to theorising in the Descartes tradition of the French, the British are empiricists.

For inspiration, maybe kick off with Texas, where the revival of the Democratic party started with the question to registered but non-voting marginalised people: “What issue do you care about?”

Or be inspired by the fresh thinking of DiEM25, the pan-European cross-border movement of democrats set up by Yanis Varoufakis to reform the EU. Or by what has been achieved in Alaska with its Land Tax.

Things can change. My experience is that more and more people want to talk. And the more that conversation is about these new sorts of politics the more interest there is. Then will come the time for new parties and leaders to arrive and for the old to transform or die.

En Marche?

  • Nevin

    “PwC’s success is based almost entirely on the quality and quantity of its people.”

    By a strange coincidence, I was reading about PwC’s Feargal O’Rourke just a few days ago.

  • james

    Talent? Well…. my two cents worth:

    The government in Westminster draws from a potentially far larger talent pool than the devolved Stormont administration could – though it is certainly hamstrung by the fact that so many of its members are drawn from a handful of elite schools. There are the seeds there of effective public administraton, but it is nowhere near enough of a meritocracy.

    NI? Well, we get the politicians we deserve at any given time – and currently we don’t deserve very good ones. The DUP seems to recruit primarily based on intransigence, lack of self-respect, and dimwitted dislike of Irishness.

    Sinn Fein, slowly running out of ex-terrorists to remold, seem to be largely in the business of training up slimy, viciously sectarian bigots whose only real qualifications are being grasping, thick and unself-awarely opinionated.

    The UUP and SDLP are each improvements on these respective models, but not much of a one – it is to be hoped that when the pendulum finally swings back to a moderate approach they may yet improve.

    Alliance are pleasantly ineffectual, and PBP, Greens etc. all give off the air that there is simply no other career they could have excelled in, so they entered politics.

    Couldn’t possibly comment on Ireland’s politicians as I know little about them, or about the country itself if I’m honest.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Edouard Philippe has certainly put new meaning into “Rainbow coalition”: 4 from PS, 3 from MoDem, 2 Républicains & 2 from the Radical Left party. In addition 11 men and 11 women all with considerable expertise. Nicolas Hulot will be an interesting one to watch due to his refusals to join previous govts, a not easily seduced figure.
    Let’s make comparisons with the calibre of elected rep that NI has at its disposal and let’s make celebrate that bi-partisan co-operation can occur.
    Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine a swap of the Hotel Matignon’s staff with that of Stormont? A new and very bloody revolution on French soil and a revolution of a different sort here. But hey, you can’t make an omelette etc.

  • Oriel27

    ‘Couldn’t possibly comment on Ireland’s politicians as I know little about them, or about the country itself if I’m honest’

    you must be over in England then.

  • ted hagan

    ‘Couldn’t possibly comment on Ireland’s politicians as I know little about them, or about the country itself if I’m honest’
    Then maybe you should try educating yourself before you talk of others being thick and ‘unself-awarely’ opinionated?

  • Oriel27

    Ha, he would want to get educated quick, he could find himself in a UI soon.

  • james

    I am familiar with the people I described thus – Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland are, sadly, on my radar. I’ve made no comment on Sinn Fein, or the other parties in Ireland, as I don’t know much about them.

    So what exactly is your issue?

  • james

    No, I’m in the UK alright – but in the Northern Ireland bit.

  • james

    No real prospect of that any time soon, thank goodness.Nor would I find myself in one. I think I’d leave if that ever happened – I’ve no desire to be stuck in decades of economic blight and possible civil strife, thanks. Had enough of that with the Provo and Loyalist goonsquads.

  • lizmcneill

    It’s not only the talent pool that provides a business case for diversity. PWC’s clients, and the government’s constituents, are diverse, and a homogeneous pool of old Etonians is less likely to have the life experience to consider the issues that face their constituents.

  • ted hagan

    Why mention them at all then? I suspect you are deliberately flaunting your ignorance; .

  • ted hagan

    So when did this idea of ‘civil strife’ enter your imagination?

  • Abucs

    Seems like a good idea. Just be careful if you want to drain the swamp. The political class have control of more than simple executive and parliamentary bodies.

  • james

    Please refer to the title of the OP.

  • james

    Not my idea. It’s been constantly mentioned on here as one of the potential risks that a UI (and certainly an imposed UI) would expose us to.

  • murdockp

    Looks like you won’t be moving to England or Scotland or even Wales if you don’t want to live in a place suffering economic blight Ireland’s GDP is 20 thousand dollars higher than the UK

  • Katyusha

    James, I hate to have to point this out, but Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Féin in Ireland are… exactly the same party.
    Secondly your description of them bears no resemblance to reality.

  • hgreen

    You had me until you mentioned PWC. A lot of the reason this country lags in terms of innovation and productivity is a result of using the big 4. Their lobbyists are as guilty as others for government incompetence.

  • hgreen

    Part of the talent problem is allowing MPs to have a career as an MP. You should be allowed two terms max as an MP before having to go back into the real world.

  • james

    As to the first part, yes, I know – just that I declined to comment on the calibre of their people in the south as I simply don’t know much about them.

    As to my description of their northern reps, I’d say it’s a pretty accurate description.

  • Katyusha

    Personally, I am all for technocracy. It seems sensible to ensure the people who run the country are subject to a rigorous hiring process based on merit. It is one of the merits of the Chinese system of government, and of the European Union.
    Democracy does not mean yielding your democratic right to the winner of a talent contest to exercise it. Democracy should mean that the people have sovereignty over the overall direction of policy; then educated and talented hands can examine the best way to implement the wishes of the people. Luckily, in Northern Ireland, the civil service run the country, although it is only during elections and hiatus that they have the freedom to run it without ministerial interference.

    PS. it was certainly true in the recent past that there was nobody – not one MP – in the House of Commons with a science or engineering degree. I would be interested, if I may ask the combined wisdom of the Slugger commentariat, if the same still applies. It certainly is not true of China, or the EU and Europe in general.

  • Oriel27

    That the same loyalist fleg protest guys ? We seen how that protest failed, damp squib. Loyalism have no cause or power now. They don’t have the numbers. They don’t have the same as what they had for the sunningdale strike.
    Unionism will bend over and do what they are told when the British government see they are obstacles to a clean brexit.
    They will have no choice but accept a ui.

  • james

    See now, that’s precisely the attitude that causes problems.

  • Korhomme

    It’s certainly odd that the Prime Minister doesn’t have to undergo the same sort of selection procedure as, say, a chief executive of a major company. You might well ask just what sort of qualifications does a PM have to exhibit in order to be considered for the job.

    As for the scientists in the HoC, I’ve heard this as well. I’m not sure if there were any in the last parliament; usually, an Oxbridge PPE or a law degree seems the commonest ‘qualification’.

  • Ian James Parsley
  • chrisjones2

    Just saw our political leaders on Newsnight debating Brexit. Like a fight among third formers in a school canteen. Shameful

  • Kevin Breslin

    Leo Varadkar can do medical stuff.

  • Paddy Ferris

    What is the measure of talent? Human failure is unavoidable, absolute success is impossible. Politicians are judged on what they fail to do, not on what they achieve. The talent is there, but buried in conflict.

  • aquifer

    Who gets to say what goes? The rich, and powerful economic interests. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B
    Democracy is being reduced to a rump role of generating assent, signing off decisions like Brexit that have been made elsewhere.

    The awful thing is that the Labour party have colluded in this, refusing to make the case for separate party political funding that could have enabled parties to attract and recruit talent. I guess the Union bosses don’t like dealing with smartasses.

  • Paddy Ferris

    ‘Couldn’t possibly comment on Ireland’s politicians…’

    You just did comment on quite a lot of them.

  • Paddy Ferris

    It is mentioned in subtext by many Unionists sadly. Essentially the message is this – if our economic argument does not kill Irish Unity, then we will kill it thru violence.

  • Paddy Ferris
  • Starviking

    “What skills are our MPs bringing to ministerial jobs?”

    In an interview, the late, great Gerry Fitt pointed to who was bringing skills to bear in the Houses of Parliament: The Lords.

    He commented that there were many who had pursued professional careers, and had a lot of experience in the areas potential government legislation could affect. They could make their points heard, and respond to queries knowledgably.

    This is the part of Parliament many want to replace with political electees!

  • james

    Well, no, not really. To my knowledge non of the SDLP, Alliance, PBP, UUP or DUP exist in Ireland. They are all Northern Ireland only outfits. Sinn Fein do operate in Ireland, though I specified the Northern Ireland branch of SF in my answer and, admittedly, I don’t know if the Greens stand for election in Ireland.

  • james

    Indeed. You’d think they’d have learned from Republicans on that score. 30 years of violence and the goal of a UI which prompted it all (at least on the Republican side) is, marginally, further away than it was in 1975.

  • aquifer

    Transparency can catch out the duffers, and with internet and database technology citizens could see where money is being spent and what it was supposed to do.

  • aquifer

    Great idea, there is too much power in incumbency, and parties would have to take the business of lining up suitable replacement MPs seriously.

  • aquifer

    Yep consultancy erodes in-house expertise and is addictive. The reports and impenetrable style can be skewed towards resulting in inaction, to avoid their flawed technical or financial judgements or political biases becoming exposed. Reports can also be used to promote pet schemes while by-passing in-house advice.

    Consultancy seems to be low risk, as project risks are taken by government, and when the big 4 are too big to sue.

    Outsourcing of government functions to incompetent contractors is also a problem.

    Government is there to manage risks that the private sector cannot.

    Eroding that role is to attack the size and role of government.

    e.g. Climate change is a big problem and risk, so big money denies it even exists, to avoid paying their fair share of taxes to fix it.

  • aquifer

    Wow, and I thought is was the public school and Oxbridge class in charge.

  • You’re​ the one who wants to be ruled by them (pointing this out to Unionists will never get old).

  • chrisjones2

    Doh. It was the local ones. It was broadcast from Belfast

    Still never let facts get in the way when there’s a chance to stick it up to a Prod eh.

  • hollandia

    As an aside, Nelson McCausland has a degree in Physics from Oxford, but believes the world to be 6,000 years old. So, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the value of having a degree of any kind, science based or not.

    Of much more importance, I would say is a proven track record outside of politics in fields such as science, economics, finance, healthcare etc

  • I didn’t mention religion.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    But who, Katyusha, is going to actually define “merit” for the rest of us? It can all too easily become ossified as just another “power” discourse, with the “successful” claiming the moral authorisation of their own clearly self-evident merit, as occurred under both the Thatcher and Blair “experience.” In such thinking the weak can go to the wall, and those big fees earned are self-evidently deserved as those at the top are those who merit success through their ruthlessness and realism.

    The entire concept of merit it is all too often tied up with that loose version of the concept of accelerationism currently popular with current neo-cons where ‘”right-accelerationism” supports the indefinite intensification of capitalism itself, possibly in order to bring about a technological singularity.’


    Its a can of worms……….

  • Paddy Ferris

    geographically they all are representatives in Ieland

  • Tochais Siorai

    Often seems to be a badge of honour for many Unionists to display their ignorance about their nearest neighbour.

    It’s as if admitting some kind of interest would be the start of some kind of slippery slope.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Seriously? Greens in Irish elections? You didn’t know the Greens were in government in the Republic from 2007-11?

    Not that it did them any good, unfortunately.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    “We seen” and you talk about the need for getting “education quick”?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I wonder if McCausland means half of what he professes. Whether he does or doesn’t he’s still an example of brainpower channelled in self serving ends. That is the nature of many of our DUPers and Shinners: exploiting division ensuring prolongation in a handsomely paid sinecure. Or maybe his instincts just override his learning. After all, his and others’ constituents (past and present) are instinctively distrustful of erudition and effective solution so why bother applying what was gained in Oxford’s dreaming spires or elsewhere?

  • Roger

    Ministers in Ireland, except Finance, can be Senators. Taoiseach can select Senators. So choice is from amongst millions. A big talent pool. In theory. In practice Taoiseach almost always sticks to elected Dail deputies.

  • Roger

    There aren’t enough old Etonians so that’s not an option.

  • Roger

    What is an imposed cession of UKNI to Ireland?

  • Roger

    Parliaments are for jurisdictions or states. Not geographical features like islands, hills, bogland, plains, mountains or lakes. Ireland’s representatives and UKNI’s representatives are separate.

  • Roger

    I believe you.

  • Roger

    Hold on. Are UKNI Green Party the same as Ireland Green Party? I don’t think so.

  • murdockp

    In the likes of Manchester, Birmingham, London, Yes they are run as private companies and those who can’t culled.

    In Northern Ireland anyone with capability motivation would loose the will to live with the red tape and worshy colleagues.

  • hollandia

    You’ve highlighted something alright, though there are clever, educated politicians out there who generally avoid such nonsense – even in the DUP and SF. I’m thinking primarily of Mairtin O’Muilleoir and Simon Hamilton, when I say that. But for each of them there’s a Gerry Kelly or a Sammy Wilson.

  • Paddy Ferris

    But they do exist in geographical features as man made constructs.

  • Roger

    They exist on planets too. It’s a pretty silly point though.

  • james

    Why, a UI enforced on the people against their will.

    The very thing the IRA spent decades killng people for at the tail end of the 20th century, and towards which end their political wing, Sinn Fein, are pursuing their cold war strategy now.

  • james

    I didn’t, no. In coalition, presumably?

    I simply don’t follow Irish politics.

  • james

    Geographical boundaries and political boundaries are, patently, not the same thing. Why is this so hard for Republicans to grasp?

    Trudeau is not a US politician. Canada and the United States are geographically united – but two different countries. Thus Trump is not a Canadian politician.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Greens are an all-Ireland party, Roger with a NI branch. No such thing as UKNI Greens.

    Or indeed UKNI.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Yes, in coalition, supping with the devil.

    The spoon wasn’t long enough.

  • Roger

    Alas there is a UKNI. Estd 1921.
    I’m surprised Greens are a cross border party.

  • Roger

    Ok. Something completely out of the question then.

  • james

    You know it, and I know it. There simply isn’t likely to be a UI for at least a generation or so.

    I think it’s time we started electing politicians who can actually help to build this region of the UK.

  • Roger

    Yes and any cession whether in a generation or in ten will not be an imposed one.

  • John Collins

    Economic Blight. Tell that to an OAP couple in the south who get €4160 each a year more that they receive in your beloved NI or carers, who receive €89 a week in NI and €230 a week in the South.

  • Ed

    Thanks Ian

  • Ed

    Thanks for making this crucial point. The role of a second chamber is as check and balance, vetting. This is not or should not be a political role. Need to find a way for people to become members of House of Lords who bring skills and knowledge – especially engineering and science, see below – that has democratic legitimacy. Last thing we need is another institution dominated by today’s political parties. Ed