Afghanistan SNAFU (situation normal all fucked up): 'normal' politics,'normal' results

The PM destroyed his own grip of Whitehall/Treasury & accidentally provoked discussions about the assembly of his own firing squad...Why the government does not control the government...

In July there was much cheery prattle in Westminster about how politics would soon be ‘back to normal’. The centre of gravity in Westminster is sick of covid and never, ever wants to discuss the fundamentals of government performance that generate disaster after disaster. This requires discussion of ministerial and civil service incentives, the dreaded subject of management and operations, the deranged way MPs focus on the media instead of reality and so on — all effectively banned topics for the lobby and pundits. And it requires discussing the Vote Leave project which is hated on all sides beyond a dissident network because it aims to replace ‘politics as normal’ for MPs, officials, and hacks.

In a subscriber-only blog on Regime Change a couple of weeks ago I described ‘politics as normal’. If you internalise this you will acquire some immunity to media fairty tales, you’ll have a better grasp of how power actually works, and unlike pundits and MPs you won’t be ‘utterly shocked’ every time our government acts normally...

Below is an excerpt…

In 2013 I wrote an essay. Over the next few years I wrote a series of blogs on the same themes. The basic argument was that:

  1. The nature of the people we have in charge of government is similar to 1914 — similar background, education, (lack of) training.

  2. The nature of the institutions we have for government decision-making, including massive crises, is similar to 1914 when a group of men with little understanding of how to think rationally about hard problems under extreme uncertainty, little grasp of how their bureaucracies had corraled them into mental and bureaucratic cul-de-sacs, little grasp of how to execute complex coordination at speed and scale, terrible preparations for the crisis, and disastrous mental models for the core problems (e.g deterring Germany over Belgium), sat around the Cabinet room table with pencils and paper and no useful tools to help them, led by a PM distracted by relative trivia and doodling notes to his girlfriend as the crisis grew, and blundered into World War I. Afterwards they described it in terms like ‘a weird nightmare’. Churchill described it as drifting into ‘fathomless catastrophe’ in ‘a kind of dull cataleptic trance'.

  3. In the past leaders lived with and understood things like cavalry. Now leaders do not live with or understand things like engineered viruses and encryption.

  4. Science, technology and markets bring many gains but also make destructive power greater, faster to deploy and easier to use for smaller groups and individuals. Errors dealing with deterring Germany over Belgium in 1914 and 1939 killed ~100,000,000. Crises now can go about 1,000 times faster with about a million times more destruction than in summer 1914. We had terrifying near-misses with people nearly launching nuclear missiles in the mistaken belief that the other side had launched. If we carry on with normal human history – that is, international relations defined as out-groups competing violently – and combine this with modern technology then we’re playing a sort of collective Russian roulette and it is near-certain that we will have a disaster on the scale of billions.

  5. Our international institutions such as the UN and EU offer no hope for dealing with such problems.

  6. This combination of growing destructive power, the speed of crises, and the skills and institutions dealing with crises is disastrous.

  7. We need to focus on two things. A) Embed reliably the unrecognised simplicities of high performance teams (HPTs) in ‘mission critical’ institutions, changing the selection, education, training, tools (e.g Red Teams, prediction markets) and incentives of senior political and official leaders. B) Create radically better institutions for international cooperation and new forms of political organisation beyond competing nation states.

  8. Both of these require breaking open the closed parties and civil service, in Amercia as well as here. So long as they control the key people and remain closed castes, it’s impossible to make serious improvements.

In 2019 I wrote about the likely collapse of the COBR system for disaster response, the grim prospect of a similar scene to 1914 playing out in the Cabinet room, and some things that could help, such as ‘Seeing Rooms’. In January 2020 I wrote that the new government was looking for very able data scientists, project managers and other skills neglected by Whitehall. The general reaction of MPs and hacks was ‘he’s mad’, though many officials welcomed this. A few weeks later we collided with covid and suffered terribly for a lack of people around No10 who understood data and could execute.

In February-March 2020 I watched a group of men with little understanding of how to think rationally about hard problems under extreme uncertainty, little grasp of how their bureaucracies had corraled them into mental and bureaucratic cul-de-sacs, little grasp of how to execute complex coordination at speed and scale, terrible preparations for the crisis, and disastrous mental models for the core problems (e.g exponential growth of a deadly disease), sit around the Cabinet room table with pencils and paper and no useful tools to help them, led by a PM distracted by relative trivia and ‘WhatsApping’ his girlfriend as the crisis grew, and blunder into covid. The people who best understood the situation, including young women smarter and more usefully trained than the men with power, struggled to be heard around the table. It felt like a ‘dull cataleptic trance’.

In the first quarter of this year I watched the PM and Hancock start to rewrite history about what happened last year and why. The PM, other powerful figures, and the centre of mass in the parliamentary Conservative Party clearly want to avoid facing the structural reasons for the failure and why we will fail again on a similar or bigger crisis unless deep structures change.

Far from facing the issues I’ve told Westminster to face for years, despite covid, because covid, collectively Westminster is trying not to. Politics is returning to ‘normal’, say the pundits happily. What does this mean?

What’s ‘normal’?

No10 is run as a media entertainment service. It is divorced from all interesting intellectual life. It has no policy plan. It has an electoral coalition created by others as part of a political and governing strategy that has left the building and has not been replaced. The PM himself broke No10’s grip of Whitehall, the Cabinet Office and the unified No10/11 team that greatly improved policy and management (instead of pointless turf wars over data and control). He has made the Treasury an independent force again, encouraged it to return to keeping information from him, then defined it as the new enemy, weakening his own grip of Whitehall and his political position. So, No10 does not think and it cannot act coherently and effectively in pursuit of hard medium-term goals. Even on the rare occasions the PM knows what he wants to do and sticks to it for a day, No10 cannot make anything hard happen — they can announce more spending because this is easy, hence the PM’s constant desire for spending announcements and the absence of any serious thinking about hard problems like NHS incentives that block performance improvements. This is similar to life under Brown, Cameron, and May. It was briefly different July 2019-November 2020. This was extremely psychologically disturbing for all players in the system and unwelcome to most.

The PM can’t change this because, as he knows, he has no idea how government works and doesn’t have the skills to make the system do what he wants. As he thrashes around, everything he does to show there is a point to him as PM reminds everybody there is only a hole, and everything he does to strengthen his grip tends to weaken it. His only chance is to find someone to grip things for him but he can’t trust anyone to have the power to do this and nobody serious would insert themselves into the surreal horror movie ‘Carrie’ without an enormous cheque to compensate. Others with real power, like the Cabinet Secretary, will not squander their reputations on him — they’ll watch carefully, conserve their own power, thwart his maddest ideas covertly (so he doesn’t understand how they’ve been killed), and wait until he’s on the edge of the ice before giving him a firm shove. He’s trapped between his ignorance, character, and paranoia. The PM’s strongest support is Starmer’s obvious uselessness which holds the voter intention polls up and calms MP nerves, but this is inherently wobbly — there is nothing else to prop the PM up so if/when this goes...

His own behaviour means he now really can’t rationally trust anyone and everybody around him knows that he will throw them all under the bus when he hears the echo of the firing squad’s boots. This squad is not yet marching but the PM himself has provoked discussions about its assembly and timing. He’s cursing himself and others because he knows this is happening and he can smell trouble. He knows that in his study every day are people who have been leaking to destroy him since 2019, he saw the Shipman story last Sunday (leaked by his own inner team to undermine him), he knows things are sliding towards some crisis, he’s shocked by what his political team has told him about the strength of the Chancellor’s support in the Commons, but he doesn’t know what to do. He fears a network of subversives, spads and officials, inside his perimeter will keep blowing things up. He’s right. He knows he had a chance to deal with this last year and decided not to act — instead he decided to listen to his girlfriend’s crackpot theories. In September he’ll try to ‘reset’. This will probably (>75%) blow up. He’s in a no-win situation with the disaster he’s created with No11. He’s prone to panic.

The MPs and hacks babble at each other as they bob in a sea of ‘stories’. Regularly a relatively big wave comes long, maybe the PM’s illegal fundraising for his wallpaper, maybe the migrant boats. The wave crashes for a few days. They wave and shout at each other a bit more frantically as they bob up and down a bit more. There’s always another wave, always a lot of frantic bobbing, but no direction to the thrashing around. The MPs and hacks are, like No10, largely divorced from the interesting things happening in the world, intellectually and organisationally. Brexit and covid were giant swells that are still pushing them all. But the MPs and hacks are bored. They crave new ephemeral emotional waves that wash through the columns and the tea rooms leaving no trace. Always another story, another wave. ‘No10 announced… The strategy is… The mood in the Commons…’ repeat the columns. There is no strategy. There is no focus. There is no plan. There is no execution. Every now and then a big wave takes many of them to the bottom. They usually spot it too late.

Officials beaver away in grim Whitehall rooms where the real power is. People you’ve never heard of and won’t hear of write agendas, fix the pre-meetings (almost always more important than the ‘real’ meeting), write the scripts (‘Chairman’s notes’) for the PM’s meetings where ministers read out their bullet points then look at their phones, and the officials, sometimes exchanging amused glances or WhatsApps as the ministers read their scripts, largely decide which options are presented and which actions are followed up — and which are allowed to die, unseen. They don’t have to worry, the ministers will be focused on their next interview, the next vote, the next scandal, the next resignation. And the officials will carry on largely controlling which people are selected, promoted, marginalised and destroyed. Remember, the officials routinely sink ministerial careers but the inverse very, very rarely happens. And the MPs don’t even complain, indeed they defend this as ‘a jewel of our constitution’!

The pundits burble… The great tides of the institutional bureaucracy roll in and out, almost totally unperturbed by the pundit din:

‘My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative”. In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligence, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned the hard way that isn’t so. Instead rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

‘For example, 1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law, any institution will resist any change in its current direction. 2) … Corporate projects will materialise to soak up available funds. [e.g HS2, imminent social care debacle] 3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will quickly be supported by … his troops. [NB. the world’s most stupid tunnel from Ireland-Scotland.] 4) The behaviour of peer companies … will be mindlessly imitated.’ (Warren Buffett)

A constant is that the real wiring of power in Whitehall will continue largely invisible. The MPs and media will ignore the fundamental questions about the nature of the people with real power. The media will not even report who is the covid taskforce, which, with the PM, actually controls covid policy. Instead they will carry on telling the public fairy stories which they mostly believe themselves, like ‘the reason for outcome A is because of a conflict between minister X and minister Y’. The Cabinet walk up Downing Street, the photographers click, their inner-chimps briefly glow, and the media reports breathlessly about supposedly vital ‘Cabinet rows’ — but the truth is Cabinet is now irrelevant slapstick, treated as farce by the PM, his spads and No10/Cabinet Office officials, so irrelevant to real power that in the whole of 2020 I attended … zero. The realities of how power is truly exercised are barely discussed beyond the anonymous officials who actually wield that power. The PM is very rarely in these discussions. The appointments he ‘makes’ are pre-fixed. If he tries to talk to the Cabinet Secretary about ‘the levers of power’, he will not understand the answer and will soon be bored. MPs are so lost they have lost touch with the basic truth that they are largely irrelevant other than at odd psychological moments, they’re extras in the farce, treated as stars by the ‘live players’ (officials) to keep them quiet. (Live players often act as (partially) dead players to preserve their advantages.)

We did Brexit to throw a spanner in the works of this ‘normal’ and provide a chance for regime change. It has allowed and forced positive change (e.g procurement). It did give us the chance to shift UK towards making science and technology central to national policy, including in defence and intelligence, and to the job of the PM. This has started to happen. The parties are having to change against their will. But there is still, inevitably, a largely unconcscious desire on the part of most MPs to ignore the vast consequences of Brexit and covid and continue with the patterns of politics, and their ideas of ‘effective action’, from pre-2016. This won’t work but they can keep running like cartoon characters off the cliff for a long time.

This is not the place to go into the dynamics of Brexit and everything we tried to do last year, what worked and didn’t, why, and so on. But we who want regime change — who want the priorities and practice at the apex of power to change radically — must think about these fundamentals that the MPs and media ignore and develop a plan to take power away from these parties and bureaucracies and give it to others…

I’ve written a few things for subscribers recently that may be of interest…

Notes & thoughts on Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First — how he governed Singapore, Part 1 and 2. If you’re interested in how the UK could have better policies (e.g savings accounts for health/welfare) and better government (e.g relentless focus on serious priorities like foreign investment and incentives in public services, instead of government-as-media-entertainment which we’ve watched for decades, with the brief exception of 2019-20), this book is very interesting.

Why did I go to No10? Almost all you read about what I and others from the Vote Leave team were trying to do is false.

Regime Change #1: How elite firms recruit talent & implications for high performance government. There are ‘soft’ elite firms like consultancies and ‘hard’ elite firms like quantitative hedge funds and elite technology companies. How they recruit has lessons for how to improve government.

Breaking kayfabe: answers to some common questions re my BBC interview with LauraK. The interview was heavily edited so many naturally asked me questions about it.

From September I’ll be posting more and developing some projects...

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