There's More to Our Political Malaise Than Bluffing Elites
A new book, 'Bluffocracy', attempts to skewer chancing politicians, but it falls short of diagnosing the crisis in Westminster and beyond.
“As I said earlier, I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told The House magazine earlier this month. “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa.”
Bradley’s admission that she did not know basic facts about Northern Ireland before coming its Secretary of State coincides neatly with thesis of a new book, Bluffocracy, by the journalist James Ball and former civil servant Andrew Greenway: “Politics, the civil service and the media are… run by people who are bluffing, winging it, obsessed with process over substance and dominated by short-termism,” the authors contend. The behaviour of figures like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Toby Young – who sail through jobs they are not qualified for – proves that the establishment has an “employment culture” that rewards those who can fake it.
So far, so obvious. And although the slim book is marketed as a polemic, claims about well-educated fools running the country into the ground are unlikely to shock in 2018. The authors are at their best when accounting for how these bluffers who populate the civil service, politics and media come into being. They map a close reading of the structure of the weekly PPE tutorials at Oxford University – where the typical bluffers’ self-preservation instincts are forged – onto the tactics for surviving Westminster, and find that the two align; “the mission for the student [in tutorials] is… to get through 60 minutes without embarrassing yourself,” they explain. “Doing the work properly doesn’t necessarily make you more effective if you don’t know the tricks as well.” But this sort of sustained analysis soon dissipates as the limits of Ball and Greenway’s thinking becomes clear.
Ideologically, Bluffocracy is best understood as a work of centrist populism. While the left critique the ruling class for prioritising finance over people and the right rally against a supposedly dominant multiculturalism, Bluffocracy takes issue with the elite for not doing their jobs properly. Ball and Greenway would like us to "learn how to respect experts" and see a greater presence of scientists in the political class. They bemoan that the non-political experts who sit in the House of Lords lack power. In other words: they want to replace Britain’s bumbling bluffocracy with a specialist technocracy.
“The UK is facing a new array of global challenges that rely on specialist knowledge, from the rise of AI, to working out solutions to climate change,” they write, “...And yet science and technology” – the serious subjects that bluffers abhor – “remain marginalised in the three of the country’s key institutions”. But the problem with the increasingly popular opinion that STEM graduates will save the world is that climate change is a political problem, not a scientific one.
Rapidly decarbonising the economy requires challenging entrenched interests. When companies like Shell and BP have had their interests threatened before, they have turned to political violence and coup d’états. What is the scientific answer to that? Likewise, artificial intelligence could emancipate or immiserate the workers of the future – but this depends not on technical knowledge but on simpler questions of who owns the machines and in whose interests will they produce value. Swapping out bluffers for scientists, without questioning the purpose of political and economic institutions, will take us nowhere.
The authors give a few lines to how the contemporary bluffocracy they describe is an “outgrowth of the Victorian concept of the ‘gentleman amateur’”. Looking at cases in detail would have been useful. There’s Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who partitioned India into two countries in 1947 with only a few months to prepare, despite having never travelled further east than Paris. There’s Sir Mark Sykes, the “amateur diplomat” who divided the Middle East into the separate nations they find themselves in to this day, laying the groundwork for sectarian strife. Sykes and Radcliffe were the Johnson-esque bluffers of their day. And there is much blood on their hands. But the central moral problem is not that they were winging it (it would not have been hugely improved by having an expert in Indian or Middle Eastern affairs do their job instead) but the imperialist and anti-democratic function they were fulfilling. That Gove and his friends bluster their way through Select Committee hearings might offend some liberal sensibilities, but it is much less important than the content and consequences of their beliefs – bumbling or not – which further the dispossession of the poor.
To be fair, Bluffocracy does not try and oversell its claims, qualifying its diagnoses and prescriptions with the sort of pseudo-Socratic, faux-modesty that characterises the bluffing class itself. It makes a decent case for the bankruptcy of that strain of aristo-bohemian Tories, given prominence by the cronyism of David Cameron’s Notting Hill set government. But it is worth considering why their behaviour is more visibly bankrupt now. The Conservative Party is experiencing a strategic crisis. Thatcherite methods of transforming the country while consolidating a voter base – tax cuts, housing bubbles and privatisation – no longer work. With the scenery collapsing behind them, the uselessness of the bluffers left centre-stage is evident. Brexit, having politicised a section of the middle classes like nothing else before, has also led to a widespread dislike of these patrician improvisers.
In this situation you might think that the authors would find the leader of the Labour Party, who not only didn’t go to Oxford but didn’t go to university at all, a breath of fresh air. Not so. “Ironically,” they write, “[Corbyn’s] accidental masterstroke has been pulling off the trick of not looking or behaving like a professional [politician]”. Rather than explaining the Labour Party’s appeal with a materialist (and surely more scientific) explanation of voters experiencing stagnating wages and a housing crisis, it is chalked off as an optical illusion.
This takes us to Bluffocracy’s symptomatic silence. In an argument that accounts for a failing type of governmental system, the actual people – the citizens, the voters, the demos, the masses – are hardly mentioned. Governing is assumed to be best done by a separate class; what the authors prescribe in the conclusion is a mere “shift away from prizing… the Oxbridge grad over the Russell Group” graduate. And so we reach the horizon of the centrist vision for Britain. Recent proposals by the Labour Party to give workers more influence in the arena where they spend their lives – not Westminster, Fleet Street or Whitehall, but the workplace – hints cautiously at another way of organising power. Neither a bluffocracy nor scientific technocracy, but a democratic economy. Nothing would frighten the bluffers more than that.
Bluffocracy is out now on Biteback.