Crisis of Competence

I should preface this post with a rare – and brief – autobiographical note.

Although I work in community development, and have done now for more than ten years, I actually trained as a psychologist (organisational/human factors, not the ‘sit down on the couch and tell me your problems’ variety). And like many people who trained in one profession only to move on and take up another, I still keep my hand in, from time to time, by skimming the professional/academic journals for items of interest, a couple of which form the basis for this article.

Ask most people to list the things that routinely driven them into a state of screaming frustration and somewhere near the top of the list you’re sure to find the word ‘incompetence’, more often than not this will be cited in the context of ‘bureaucratic incompetence’ and encounters with the kafkaesque world of officialdom where anything and everything seem purposely designed to prevent the individual obtaining a reasonable solution, answer of response to even the most basic of problems.

Over the years, much has been written, said, filmed and blogged on the subject of bureacratic incompetence..

It has influenced our common language – the term ‘jobsworth’ entered the English language sometime during the late 1960s/early 1970s, rapidly becoming the standard methods of describing one of least endearing denizons of the bureauicratic environment,  the minor functionary for whom ‘the rules’ are everything such that any deviation from them is ‘more than their job’s worth’.

It has spawned a language all of its own, one rich in euphemisms, disingenuity and dissembling: bureaucrats don’t have skills, they have core competencies, they never lie, although they may be economical with the truth, and, of course, no one is ever fired, sacked or made redundant, they are merely downsized or redeployed outside the company. And this, in turn, has spawned a game, which is called either buzzword bingo or bullshit bingo depending on your personal prefence, and given rise to the cultural phenomenon that is Dilbert, which manages to both take the piss unmercifully and yet still prompt people to put forward their own stories of real-world bureacratic incompetence and stupidity that are every bit as bizarre as anything that Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams, can concoct for his cartoon strips or books.

Yet, for the most part, what captures the attention of most people are the bureaucratic systems that support and sustain the kind of incompetence on regularly encounters in bureaucratic organisations. It seems almost to be taken as read that in dealing with bureaucracies you will encounter people who are incompetent, stupid, venal and occasionally bordering on corrupt, and yet when we complain about such things we invariably blame the system for housing these people and for failing to hold them to account rather than the individuals themselves.

One can readily see how ‘the system’ works to avoid accountability and personal responsibility from this BBC report of Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell’s response to questions from Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee about the recent foreign prisioners fiasco:

The UK’s top civil servant [O’Donnell] was questioned about the controversy by the Commons public administration committee.

He said it was sometimes difficult to divide policy, which was the responsibility of ministers, from "delivery".

"If you ask Charles Clarke, he was clear he takes responsibility for the department and all it does. Certainly from the civil servants’ side mistakes were made and we need to learn from that," he said.

Asked if civil servants should have resigned over the controversy, Sir Gus replied: "I’m not clear that there was sufficient direct accountability for that to be appropriate.

"This would have been assessed by line managers along the way and people will be looking at what lessons to learn and what staff changes are necessary."

A "wide range of officials" were responsible for "a number of jobs", he added.

Look carefully enough and you can sense the mental subtext behind O’Donnell’s comments:

Good god, man. If we had to get rid of everyone who screwed up we’d end up sacking half the damn department!

While it is certainly true that bureaucracies have, over time, evolved any number of subtle and sophisticated methods of avoiding responsibility for getting this wrong – amongst my personal favourites are collective decision-making, which ensures that no one is ever blamed for getting things wrong as no one person can be identified as having taken the decision that caused the problem, and process management* under which projects are judged successful if they follow the right kind of process, even if they fail entirely to deliver anything of consequence – this does not remove the personal dimension from consideration. Bureaucracies are staffed by people, and its the people that make the actual mistakes – the system only serves to cover-up these mistakes, allowing the incompetent to avoid any responsibility for fouling things up.

*Process management is, of course, the basis of the majority of ‘quality systems’, many of which aren’t actually worth the paper they’re written on. To give a perfect example, the Community Legal Service Quality Mark, which was set up by the government as a quality standard for providers of information, advice and legal services, assesses applicants on their processes and how well these are documented/implemented – the one thing it doesn’t assess, however, is whether the information/advice given is actually any good.

All of which brings me to what I really wanted to discuss here, the personal dimensions of incompetence and to two research studies: –

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (pdf) by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University, first published in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and

‘Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence’ (pdf) by Dunning, Kerri Johnson & Joyce Ehrlinger (Cornell University) and Kruger (now University of Illinois),which was published in 2003 in Current Directions in Pshycological Science.

Of the two, the second ‘Why People Fail…" is a little more accessible being more of a review paper than ‘Unskilled and Unaware…", which is more strictly reseach orientated, and yet both make for fascinating reading.

Both deal with what might colloquially be referred to as ‘David Brent Syndrome’, where one encounters an individual with seeminging unshakable belief in their own ability despite it being patently obvious to the outside observser that they are manifestly incompetent and what both show is incompetence packs a double whammy in these people: not only do they consistantly over-estimate their own ability, skills and job performance, but they also consistant under-estimate the ability, skills and performance of competent people around them. They are, quite literally, blind to their own failings being neither capable of recognising their own incompetence or recognising competence in others, from which they could otherwise identify benchmarks against which to the assess their own ability, as the Kruger and Dunning study notes:

In essence, we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition (Everson & Tobias,1998), metamemory (Klin, Guizman, & Levine, 1997), metacomprehension (Maki, Jonas, & Kallod, 1994), or self-monitoring skills (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982). These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error. For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter.

Factor in a ‘business culture’ that insulates such individuals from criticism and personal accountability for mistakes and you have a perfect recipe not only for failure, but for repeated failures.

Consider, for a moment, the abysmal record of the public sector and particularly central government when it comes to large-scale information technology projects – a field in which, over the last few years, words like ‘on-time’ and ‘on-budget’ are almost unknown. In report after report by external auditors, the Audit Commission and the Public Accounts Committee, government departments have been castigated again and again for making the same basic mistakes in commissioning IT project to the point where government and the civil service are near legendary for their inability to adequately commission and project-manage technology-based projects.

I’m not going to go down the road of quoting large chunks of some of these reports in failed and failing projects but you can trust me that if you do track down and read a few of them you’ll find the same failings and same criticisms repeated over and over again, and yet nothing seems to change.

Why?

In part the system is to blame insofar as it protects individuals from the full consequences of failure – in the public sector, in particular, screw-ups that would result in an absolute blood-bath of sackings in a private company will often get written-off as ‘learning experiences’ while those responsible are either left in place, redeployed to other departments, taking their failings with them, or sometime even promoted on the basis of little more than having achieved the requisite ‘seniority’ to merit a move up the ladder.

But equally it would not be true to suggest that such reports are simply ignored and not acted upon – they are. Departments are reorganised, recommendations are considered and implemented, systems are put in place, policies are written, action plans are drawn up and staff are redeployed and given training – and all to little or no appreciable effect.

Why? Because all the system, procedures, training and action plans in the world will not overcome the basic problem of incompetence, because non of these things actually teach people the one key skill they lack, the ability to distinguish between good and bad judgement, between accuracy and error.

One could ask, I suppose, why these people aren’t weeded out earlier their careers; why their incompetence is not  noticed sooner. Well that’s where the ‘Peter Principle’ comes into play, which holds that:

successful members of a hierarchical organization are eventually promoted to their highest level of competence, after which further promotion raises them to a level at which they are not competent.

Or more simply that:

In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.

However, this is not simply a function of promotion placing individuals into a more difficult or complex job, which they then fail to cope with, rather promotions may take an individual into a role which requires different skills to their previous job(s); skills that they don’t possess – the classic example of the Peter Principle is the worker whose excellence in their jobs gets them promoted from the factory floor into management, only for it become apparent that they are completely unsuited to such a role.

In short, incompetence only becomes apparent once an individual is placed in a situation where their failings are exposed and not before – they may even have been in a particular job for several years when that happens having either had their deficiencies masked by the work of colleagues/subordinates or simply never having faced a particular situation in which the skills they lack are some obviously essential.

There is much of interest to be gleaned from these two studies – just consider these passages for a moment:

However, we have found that people’s estimates of their performance arise, at least in part, from a top-down approach. People start with their preconceived beliefs about their skill (e.g., “I am good at logical reasoning”) and use those beliefs to estimate how well they are doing on any specific test. This strategy at first seems to be a good one—people who believe they have logical reasoning skill should have some basis for that claim—except for one fly in the ointment. People’s impressions of their intellectual and social skills often correlate only modestly, and sometimes not at all, with measures of their actual performance (Falchikov & Boud, 1989). Indeed, and perhaps more important, people just tend to hold overinflated views of theirskills that cannot be justified by their objective performance (Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989; Weinstein, 1980). Therefore, preconceived notions of skill can lead people to err in their performance estimates.

And…

The top-down nature of performance estimates can have important behavioral consequences. Women, for example, tend to disproportionately leave science careers along every step of the educational and professional ladder (Seymour, 1992). We began to wonder if topdown influences on performance estimates might contribute to this pattern. Starting in adolescence, women tend to rate themselves as less scientifically talented than men rate themselves (Eccles, 1987). Because of this, women might start to think they are doing less well on specific scientific tasks than men tend to think, even when there is no gender difference in performance. Thinking they are doing less well, women might become less enthusiastic about participating in scientific activities.

We put these notions to a test by giving male and female college students a pop quiz on scientific reasoning. Before the quiz, the students were asked to rate themselves on their scientific skills, and the women rated themselves more negatively than the men did. The students’ estimates of their performance on the quiz showed the same pattern, with the women thinking that they had done less well than the men thought, even though there was no gender difference in actual performance. Later, when asked if they would like to participate in a science competition for fun and prizes, the women were more likely than the men to decline the invitation. This reluctance correlated significantly with their perceptions of performance on the quiz, but not at all with actual performance (Ehrlinger & Dunning, 2003, Study 4). Perception of performance, not reality, influenced decisions about future activities.

This line of argument is one that has clear implications for the ongoing debate about the ‘gender pay-gap’ on which both Tim Worstall and Chris Dillow have made a number of interesting and rather sceptical observations about what often passes as the ‘accepted wisdom’ in this area – a selection of Tim’s commentaries can be accessed via this link while Chris’s take on matters can be accessed here – both links take you to Google search results, which is the quickest way of tracking down these articles – not least as it suggests that the observed differential, in women, between perceived and actual performance may well act as form of internalised ‘glass ceiling’ that influences women’s educational/career choices to the detriment of their real economic potential.

Intruiging as such lines of inquiry are, they are one’s that I much prefer to leave to those, like Tim and Chris, whose knowledge and understanding of economics far outstrips my own – if nothing else I can recognise the boundaries of my own competence in such matters. What I find more interesting is how these studies and question of individual and systematic incompetence may relate to certain facets of our currrent political and governmental culture and how they shape that culture in terms of what seems increasingly to be a prime objective of all those working in government – the avoidance of responsibility and accountability.

By tradition, when screw-ups happen in government, the buck stops at the relevant Minister, as Gus O’Donnell stresses here:

If you ask Charles Clarke, he was clear he takes responsibility for the department and all it does. Certainly from the civil servants’ side mistakes were made and we need to learn from that

This is an all-too typical response in such situations – civil servants must ‘learn from their mistakes’ but the Minister is the one who bears the actual responsibility for the foul-up.

Sometimes this is undoubtedly true – Politicians make policy and when it all goes pear-shaped, its found that policy if the cause of the problems. However it is still more often the case that when government screws thing up badly, the real fault lies in the incompetence of civil servants than in the failing of Ministers. By and large, the British political system remains relatively free of wholesale pre-meditated corruption/deception – few of the more notorious/egregious examples of governmental cover-ups over the last 30-40 years began with political decisions and/or politically driven conspiracies before the fact – the one fully documented case of such a conspiracy we have is that of the Chagos Islanders. Most such cover-ups develop after the fact and are devised to conceal cock-ups and errors of judgement committed by public servants – one thinks of the business of ‘arms to Iraq’ and the Scott Inquiry, Chinook ZD576 and ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ or even the furore over the sinking of the Belgrano*, where a simple failure to appraise Parliament of the true circumstances of its sinking at the first reasonable opportunity led to an entirely unnecessary cover-up and subsequent scandal out of all proportion to the actual event itself.

*The Belgrano has to be one tof he most unnecessary scandals in British Parliamentary history.

The short version of what happened was that a battlefield decision to sink the Belgrano was taken by a commander in the field who judged that its simply being at sea constituted a serious enough threat to British Forces to warrant its sinking. In the aftermath of the sinking an innaccurate narrative of events was given to Parliament – misleading the House being entirely permissable when British forces are engaged in combat on the grounds that one simply does not provide information in a public arena that may be of use to ‘the enemy’.

Where things went wrong was after the Falklands War was over. The Conservative government, faced with questions about the sinking of the Belgrano, chose to stick to the earlier, misleading, narrative of events rather than provide an accurate account of the real circumstances leading to its sinking, dug itself a hole in process and then kept digging in the face of further questions and speculation as facts emerged which contradicted aspects of the official line, not least the position and direction of the Belgrano at the time it was sunk.

Everything that followed, including the unsuccessful prosecution of civil service whistleblower, Clive Ponting, could have been avoided had the government simply told Parliament what had actually happened and explained that they could not give them the full story earlier as this would have compromised the safety of the British Task-Force.

The problem here is that the doctrine of Ministerial accountability often mitigates against holding civil servants to account for their own acts of incompetence.

Why?

Because Ministers rely on their civil servants for information and answers to questions about departmental performance and service delivery – in answering a probing question tabled a backbench MP, the answer given by a Minister has almost always been supplied to them by a civil servant whose interests, when it comes to matters of incompetence, are likely to be anything but that of giving a full, open and transparent response to the original question.

To be a government Minister is, to some extent, to become a hostage to fortune – civil servants never knowingly lie to ministers but they do omit information which might prove ‘inconvenient’ or open up lines of questioning that they would prefer to avoid. Ordinarily, one might suppose that such practices are fine so far as they go, until it become apparent to the Minister that a particular account they’ve been given is somewhat less than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, at which point the Minister in question would start asking a few awkward questions of their own.

But that’s not generally how thing turn out, usually because by the time it becomes apparent to a Minister that the official line they were given by civil servants is some distance from being the full truth, the official line has long since been conveyed to Parliament and entered into the official record to the extent that backtracking becomes near impossible without damaging the credibility of either the Minister, the department or both.

The most spectacular example of this in recent years has to be the case of Chinook ZD576, the history of which is covered here. What makes this case particularly interesting is that it spans a change of government such that the absurdities it demonstrates cannot be attributed to a single political party.

To understand the situation as it still stands today, allow me to quote from a letter written by Sir Malcolm Rifkind and published in the Sunday Herald in February 2002:

Last week a high-powered House of Lords select committee published its report into the 1994 Chinook air disaster that caused the deaths of the cream of British military intelligence. . .The select committee was chaired by the formidable Lord Jauncey, a former Lord of Appeal and a judge whom I know from my own experience to be a person of the highest ability and integrity. He was assisted by four colleagues, two of whom are distinguished QCs. They had no axe to grind and they approached their task with great professionalism.

They concluded, unanimously, that it would be wrong for the Ministry of Defence to maintain the finding of gross negligence against the deceased pilots of the Chinook made eight years ago by two senior RAF air-marshals. . .The immediate reaction of the government was made by armed forces minister Adam Ingram within hours of the publication of the report. He could hardly have had time to read it, but he appeared to dismiss it as containing nothing new. The implication was that the government would not budge.

That in itself would not run counter to any of the previous behaviour of the Ministry of Defence. There has already been a fatal accident inquiry, under a Scottish sheriff, which concluded that the finding of gross negligence was unsafe and should not be maintained. The government ignored that.

The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons, its most important select committee, has accused the Ministry of Defence of arrogance and called for the verdict to be put aside. They have been ignored for their pains. There have been various studies of the accident by aeronautics and com puter experts, all of whom have concluded that technical problems may have caused the accident. Their views have been dismissed.

To make matters worse, the RAF has changed its procedures so that never again will air-marshals be asked to allocate blame for air accidents. They will try to identify the technical causes of air accidents but leave questions of blame to the civilian courts. The Chinook case, therefore, remains a hangover from a discredited procedure, but the Ministry of Defence clings to the air-marshals’ decision with all the tenacity of a rottweiler.

I confess I have a personal interest in this case. I was the secretary of state for defence at the time the air- marshals reached their decision. I endorsed it and reported its conclusion to parliament. . .I recall being sad that the pilots were being blamed, but at that time I had no reason to question the conclusion of the RAF that gross negligence was the cause of the accident. These are highly complex and technical matters. A defence secretary has no more specialist knowledge of why an aircraft might have crashed than a health secretary would have on why a heart transplant had gone wrong. One must, to a considerable extent, trust the judgement of one’s senior advisers.

That’s the nub of this case – two air-marshals overruled the findings of the RAF’s own inquiry into the crash and inserted an unsustainable verdict of gross negligence (which amounts to manslaughter) against the flight crew who were killed in this crash and yet, despite a series of independent inquiries, including a House of Lords Select Committee, all which found against this verdict, the MOD has steadfastly refused to reconsider the verdict of the air marshals – a line which Ministers have consistantly followed in the House to the extent that one MP, James Arbuthnot, is still pursuing the matter to this day.

How does one get from this sorry situation to the two reseatch papers on the psychology of incompetence, well perhaps these extracts from the report of the House of Lords Select Committee may clarify matters:

135.  During the course of his evidence Sir John [Day] on more than one occasion emphasised that his conclusions were based on fact and not on hypotheses. It is therefore appropriate to look at some of the matters which he treated as fact. (Page references are to HL Paper 25(i).)

      (a)  "We know that about 20 seconds before impact with the ground the crew made a way point change" (Q 280, p 118 col 1). This figure which derives from the Racal report on the SuperTANS is based on a power down speed of 150 knots and a straight course from the WP change to impact at that speed. It is therefore at best an estimate and not a fact since the only factual evidence of speed at or after the change is the indication from the ground speed and drift indicator of 147 knots at initial impact (AAIB report, paragraph 7).

      (b)  "We know for a fact … that some four seconds before impact the crew started to flare the aircraft" (Q 280, p 117 col 1; Q 1088). Not so. The Boeing simulation, using assumptions now shown to be incompatible, produced this result. On no view could it be described as fact and there is no evidence either way as to what caused the aircraft to impact the ground in the position described in the AAIB report.

      (c)  "They had chosen to fly straight over the Mull of Kintyre, and we know that because they had set up this 1000 feet a minute ROC" (Q 301). There is no evidence that they had chosen to overfly the Mull, and indeed the making of the way point change suggests the contrary. Furthermore the 1000 feet a minute ROC derives entirely from the Boeing simulation with all its deficiencies referred to above.

      (d)  "What is for sure is that they were in a 1000 a minute cruise climb in that last 20 seconds before the final four seconds of flare" (Q 304). This is far from being sure given the deficiencies in the simulation already referred to.

      (e)  "We know they did not pull emergency power" (Q 311). Sir John later agreed that the impact could have destroyed any evidence of emergency power being pulled (Q 1097).

136.  An example of Sir John’s reliance on facts appears in the evidence given on his first appearance before us: "The judgment I have made about gross negligence is not based on what I think may have happened, it is based on what I know happened from the facts I have described to you" (Q 321). The majority of these "facts" were the matters referred to in the preceding paragraph.

However, the select committee had this to say about these facts in its conclusions:

148.  We consider that Sir John’s conclusions on this matter must be weakened by his reliance on matters which he treated as facts but which have been demonstrated to our satisfaction to be not facts but merely hypotheses or assumptions.

The actions of Air Marshals in this case fit the pattern of incompetence identified Dunning et al – he has grossly overestimated his own understanding of the evidence in this case and reached a judgment predicted primarily on his belief that his own experience vastly outweighed the judgment of the RAF’s own investigators – indeed when challenged as to why the Air-Marshals overruled the findings of RAF crash investigators and inserted their own judgement in its place, their reponse was to dismiss the finding of the investigators on the grounds that they lacked experience in such matters.

Chinook ZD576 may be an extreme example of government and the civil service go about the task of protecting the incompetent, but it is far from being unique – indeed one has to wonder just how routine an occurance it actual is?

The other aspect of incompetence I want to raise is directed more specifically at politicians and wider political culture in general, or to be more specific one aspect of that culture which has come to dominate the political scene over the last 30 years or so, and that’s the ‘cult of strong leadership’.

Since the late 1970s politics, and particularly success in elections, has increasingly come to rest on public perceptions of leadership, both here and in the US – all the beginning of this in the US can more properly be traced back to at least Kennedy’s victory over Nixon in 1960. This leads to a rather intriguing observation about winning elections, or more precisely about winning successive elections, which is simply that over the last 30 years, in both Britain and the US, the politicians who have succeeded in winning successive elections have, almost uniformly, been those who most conveyed an image of having almost absolute self-belief in their ability – Reagan, Clinton and George W Bush in the US and, of course, Thatcher and Blair in the UK. Conversely on the two occasions where an incumbent failed to secure reelection , George H W Bush and John Major, both were markedly more self-effacing in character than their opponents, Clinton and Blair.

But, as the research into incompetence seems to demonstrate, this quality of absolute self-belief in one’s own ability is often a sign of incompetence and, in particular of its ‘double curse’ in which one not only fails to see one’s own failing but also cannot recognise the competence of others.

When one thinks about how such a character trait might manifest itself in someone who attains high office, such as becoming President or Prime Minister, one has to think that one of its more striking effects would be to condition the individual to take an extremely hands-on approach to their role, Being far more inclined to trust their own judgement than that of others whose competence cannot be assured, such an individual would inevitably tend to centralise the authority of government on themselves. In fact the more their administration ran in to problems the more they would respond by taking on even more responsibilty for and control of decision-making processes in government – after all, if, for example, the Home Office cannot manage to deport foreign prisioners on release, thereby proving itself incompetent, does that not also prove that the judgement of the Home Secretary responsible for that department cannot also be trusted – and if one cannot trust the Home Secretary’s judgement, well who else’s can you trust but your own.

The US system to some extent mitigates against such scenarios by limiting Presidents to two four year terms of office – even if the American peiople do succeed in electing an incompetent President, they’re rarely around long enough for the full extent of their incompetence to become fully apparent. That coupled with mid-term congressional elections which often leave the opposition in control of the Senate and/or House of Representatives for the last two years of the Presidential term, effectively preventing the President for doing anything that might really stuff things up, tend to the limit the potential damage that an incompetent President might do were they to go the full eight years with their full powers and support intact.

Britain has no such check and balances – a successful Prime Minister can go until either the electorate – or their own party – get sick of them and decide its time for a change…

…which when you look at the circumstances of Thatcher’s fall from grace and Blair’s increasingly difficult situation prompts an interesting question.

To what extent can Thatcher’s downfall and Blair’s current problems be attributed to each of them reaching the point of their own incompetence?

Of course, the clincher in Thatcher’s case was the Poll Tax, but in terms of finding something which both reflects the overall character of the Thatcher government during its final years and which could be construed to support an ‘incompetence’ hypothesis, perhaps this closing section of Geoffrey’s Howe’s resignation speech from November 1990 might prove illuminating:

There is talk, of course, of a single currency for Europe. I agree that there are many difficulties about the concept–both economic and political. Of course, as I said in my letter of resignation, none of us wants the imposition of a single currency. But that is not the real risk. The 11 others cannot impose their solution on the 12th country against its will, but they can go ahead without us. The risk is not imposition but isolation. The real threat is that of leaving ourselves with no say in the monetary arrangements that the rest of Europe chooses for itself, with Britain once again scrambling to join the club later, after the rules have been set and after the power has been distributed by others to our disadvantage. That would be the worst possible outcome.

It is to avoid just that outcome and to find a compromise both acceptable in the Government and sellable in Europe that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has put forward his hard ecu proposal. This lays careful emphasis on the possibility that the hard ecu as a common currency could, given time, evolve into a single currency. I have of course supported the hard ecu plan. But after Rome, and after the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister two weeks ago, there is grave danger that the hard ecu proposal is becoming untenable, because two things have happened.

The first is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appeared to rule out from the start any compromise at any stage on any of the basic components that all the 11 other countries believe to be a part of EMU–a single currency or a permanently fixed exchange rate, a central bank or common monetary policy. Asked whether we would veto any arrangement that jeopardised the pound sterling, my right hon. Friend replied simply, "Yes." That statement means not that we can block EMU but that they can go ahead without us. Is that a position that is likely to ensure, as I put it in my resignation letter, that

"we hold, and retain, a position of influence in this vital debate"?

I fear not. Rather, to do so, we must, as I said, take care not to rule in or rule out any one solution absolutely. We must be seen to be part of the same negotiation.

The second thing that happened was, I fear, even more disturbing. Reporting to this House, my right hon. Friend almost casually remarked that she did not think that many people would want to use the hard ecu anyway–even as a common currency, let alone as a single one. It was remarkable–indeed, it was tragic–to hear my right hon. Friend dismissing, with such personalised incredulity, the very idea that the hard ecu proposal might find growing favour amoung the peoples of Europe, just as it was extraordinary to hear her assert that the whole idea of EMU might be open for consideration only by future generations. Those future generations are with us today. How on earth are the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England, commending the hard ecu as they strive to, to be taken as serious participants in the debate against that kind of background noise? I believe that both the Chancellor and the Governor are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope that there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors. It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

The point was perhaps more sharply put by a British business man, trading in Brussels and elsewhere, who wrote to me last week, stating :

"People throughout Europe see our Prime Minister’s finger-wagging and hear her passionate, No, No, No’, much more clearly than the content of the carefully worded formal texts."

He went on :

"It is too easy for them to believe that we all share her attitudes ; for why else has she been our Prime Minister for so long?"

My correspondent concluded :

"This is a desperately serious situation for our country." And sadly, I have to agree.

The tragedy is–and it is for me personally, for my party, for our whole people and for my right hon. Friend herself, a very real tragedy–that the Prime Minister’s perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation. It risks minimising our influence and maximising our chances of being once again shut out. We have paid heavily in the past for late starts and squandered opportunities in Europe. We dare not let that happen again. If we detach ourselves completely, as a party or a nation, from the middle ground of Europe, the effects will be incalculable and very hard ever to correct.

In my letter of resignation, which I tendered with the utmost sadness and dismay, I said :

"Cabinet Government is all about trying to persuade one another from within".

That was my commitment to Government by persuasion–persuading colleagues and the nation. I have tried to do that as Foreign Secretary and since, but I realise now that the task has become futile : trying to stretch the meaning of words beyond what was credible, and trying to pretend that there was a common policy when every step forward risked being subverted by some casual comment or impulsive answer.

The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister–and, after all, in two decades together that instinct of loyalty is still very real–and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great. I no longer believe it possible to resolve that conflict from within this Government. That is why I have resigned. In doing so, I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country. The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.

What makes this interesting is not the policy issues – one can easily dispute Howe’s assertions about monetary union and the ERM being right for Britain – but the overall picture it paints of conditions within the Thatcher government of the time, particularly here:

The first is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appeared to rule out from the start any compromise at any stage on any of the basic components that all the 11 other countries believe to be a part of EMU–a single currency or a permanently fixed exchange rate, a central bank or common monetary policy. Asked whether we would veto any arrangement that jeopardised the pound sterling, my right hon. Friend replied simply, "Yes."

Where she appears to have unilaterally taken a policy stance on the matter that not only do senior members of her cabinet disagree with, but about which they appear to have had no knowledge whatsoever until she made the statement to which Howe refers.

Over the last year, since winning the general election, one can see much the same characteristic emerging from the Blair government. Although no one has, as yet, done a ‘Geoffrey Howe’ on Blair it seems clear that more and more policy is being driven entirely from the Prime Minister’s office with the expectation that even senior ministers will fall meekly into line and simply do as they are told by the PM, whether they agree with him or not – there have certainly been persistant rumours that both Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly, while Home Secretary and Education Secretary respectively, were extremely unhappy with elements of the policy hand being dealt to them by Blair but had their objections more or less summarily dismissed, meanwhile, as the recent reshuffle made apparent, Blair has chosen to surround himself with as many loyal supporters as humanly possible in a government where there is a heir-apparent waiting in the wings – it may be a little harsh to characterise some of these people simply as ‘yes men’ but it does seem to be the case that Blair has substantially stripped away from the core of government those whose judgment fails to coincide precisely with his own or who are likely to put forward alternatives to his preferred policy position on key issues.

The question has to be asked, therefore – has Blair exceeded his own competence as Prime Minister?

While he obviously retains all his presentational skills of old and remains a formidable performer on the floor of the House, in terms of policy his agenda for his final term in office is much less conservative and much more demanding than anything put forward in the bulk of his two previous terms and this may well be the tipping point beyond which he falls prey to the double curse of incompetence being neither able to correctly assess the validity of his own judgements nor recognise competence in the judgments of others.

2 thoughts on “Crisis of Competence

  1. The question has to be asked, therefore – has Blair exceeded his own competence as Prime Minister?

    The probable answer is ‘yes’: witness the ‘mission statements’ issued to ministers as well as Blair’s latest decsion to ‘go nuclear’ long before the Energy Review is published. Also, given the innaccuracies re. the judicial system in his recent email exchange with Henry Porter, you wonder whether he even has competence in his ‘old’ job as a lawyer.

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