A political career in the gilded halls of Westminster comes with no educational requirements. It requires no previous experience or field of expertise, yet it comes with great responsibility and weighty expectations. We expect our elected leaders to pontificate on subjects from culture to ecology to economics, and trust them to regulate and micro manage our daily lives and dispose of around 40% of our joint output, to spend as they see fit. We trust them, in other words, to devise policy; the art of formulating expedient courses of action to address our every problem or challenge. We ask them to effectively take responsibility for and run on our behalf a large part of our lives for us.
Yet we do not require of our political overlords proof that they possess any skills necessary to master such weighty tasks. We judge them largely by intention; to raise taxes, to prioritize between and adequately fund health, schools and pensions, to halt global warming, to defend our sovereignty.
We would not hire as a builder an unskilled man who promised us a wonderful house. We would not hire as an attorney a man with no knowledge of law but good intentions. We would not trust a doctor to treat us for cancer if all he could show was a desire to cure us. Yet we continue to show blind faith in the democratic political process to deliver good outcomes. This is even more bizarre considering we know politicians lie. A recent poll ranked British politicians at the top of a list of untrustworthy professions. Only 15% of the public trust a politician to tell the truth.
A look at the current cabinet reveals the lack of relevant skills and experience. Few would be able to successfully apply for a job in private industry within the field of the portfolio that has been entrusted to them. As secretary for Communities and Local Government, the former investment banker Sajid David holds responsibilities for housing, planning and fire services. Gavin Williamson may not find his experience from the pottery and architecture industry useful in military discussions, but after the fall of Michael Fallon he now holds that responsibility as Defence minister. Career politician Greg Clark has no first-hand knowledge of business, but is trusted with central planning of British industry by devising an industrial strategy. Chancellor Philip Hammond breaks the mould: a degree in Philosophy, politics and Economics and experience as a company director does count as relevant experience.
The challenge for an aspiring politician is getting elected, and certain skills come in handy. For example, campaigning skills such as being a decent public speaker is important. But the most valuable skills are abilities to build alliances, secure allegiances and scheme against your adversaries. This is the art of Politics. That is how you make it to the top of the party, securing yourself a candidacy. Should you through weaselling and Machiavellian scheming acquire a senior position you may even get a safe seat, negating the need for campaigning skills also. The most glaring example may be Dianne Abbott, whose repeatedly shambolic media performances has apparently done nothing to dent her career prospects. She still holds the senior position of Shadow Home Secretary and the candidacy in the super safe seat of Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Labour got 62.4% at the last election). Personal loyalty and, in today’s Labour Party, ideological purity, trumps competency.
Policy and politics are different disciplines and require different skills. Westminster is full of people skilled in the latter, put there by an electorate naively expecting them to be skilled in the former. The history of democracy should teach us that waste, mismanagement and self-serving policies are the typical outcomes. We have come to expect to be disappointed, hence trust in the political class is at rock bottom. Never mind. Come the next election day, we will again judge candidates by their stated intentions, only to complain about their incompetency once in office.