05 July 2012


The most significant effect of the coalition has been to bring into the highest level of government people who have little investment in maintaining the pretences about the way the system works.

This is because, as with the Liberals 35 years ago, the merest contact with the reality of government has made the Liberal Democrats unelectable for a generation. Nick Clegg's importance will hit zero on the day that the date of the next election is announced.

I've commented about this before, when Clegg forgot to pretend that as "Deputy Prime Minister" he was supposed to be "running the country" when Cameron was away.

His comments on being "lobotomised" by the demands of his position are familiar to anyone who reads politicians' memoirs, but the impact has always been lessened by the passage of time between the experience and its publication. "Things are different now", "he's just bitter, every political career ends in failure" etc.

Here is a man still not only at the peak of his achievement, but at the peak of what he could ever reasonably imagined he would achieve, all but saying that it is worthless, that responding to events so dominates activity that whatever he actually believes, whatever he was elected to do, is irrelevant.

This is no accident. One of the most overlooked facts in modern life is the time that it takes for a person in authority to understand a question and decide on an answer. (This is as true of business as it is of politics). The only way for a leader to function is by delegation, and it only works if he can delegate to people he trusts. There are two ways to do it. Either you choose someone to deal with an issue who you believe is the best person to understand and decide on that issue, in which case your power is fully exercised in making that appointment, or you choose someone who you believe will honestly and accurately inform you of the most salient elements of the situation so that you can make the decision that you would have made had you time to do it all yourself.

The first of these paths is never possible for a democratic politician. The appointment of subordinates cannot be made on the basis of their effectiveness in their position, because keeping power requires trading favours, and positions of subordinate power are the most important favours that the politician has to offer. Positions must be awarded primarily on the basis of who is to be favoured, not on who is best for the job.

The second path is rarely achievable either, for the same reason. Occupiers of subordinate offices are potential rivals, and can be expected to act in their own interests, not in yours. The normal expectation is that they will use their greater knowledge of the issue in question to manipulate you to the decision they want, rather than help you to the decision you would want.

This is the SNAFU principle. It says that hierarchy doesn't work, because "Communication is only possible between equals".

I do not say that the second path is impossible, though, because I do not believe the SNAFU principle is completely true. There is a phenomenon so unfamiliar to the 1970s Discordians who formulated the SNAFU principle that, radically open-minded as they were, they failed to take it into account. That is personal loyalty.

If a leader has followers who are personally loyal to him, and do not have independent ambitions for themselves, they can be trusted to assist his decision-making. Such loyalty is scarce, but the most effective political leaders have managed one or two loyal followers among their tail. Blair had Alistair Campbell. Thatcher had, I think, Keith Joseph, Willie Whitelaw, possibly Norman Tebbit. They both were able to have substantially more effect on government as a result.

Clegg, of course, has no such effect. There is nobody in the entire world who is personally loyal to Nick Clegg, with the possible exception of his wife - and he would not be allowed to make her a minister. For that matter, I rather doubt that Cameron has anyone either.

I don't want to overstate or oversimplify: such personal loyalty is never total or unconditional, and cannot be perfectly verified. It is not a magic formula that will result in effective organisation. But it is real, and it helps, and it is reasonable to conclude that we could have a lot more of it if we were to respect it as something useful and admirable. Instead, there is a tendency to see it as questionable or even corrupt. We hear that executives (in the public or private sector) should be selected for intrinsic personal qualities, rather than for their external relationship with their superiors.

The end result is that Nick Clegg is made helpless by being surrounded by rivals and enemies, and doesn't even see that as the root of his problem, because that is how politics is supposed to be.

This is the flip side of this post from February, where I looked at the relationship of personal loyalty from the follower side. There, I argued that having a personal tie to a superior had a beneficial effect on the long-term, moral behaviour of a subordinate. Here I claim that having a loyal subordinate increases the effectiveness of a leader.


Aaron Davies said...

Note that this is as true in business. I get the impression Steve Jobs had the full personal loyalty of most of Apple. Ballmer sure as hell doesn't at Microsoft, and I doubt Gates ever did either.

Anomaly UK said...

It's true that it applies in business too. Not that it's really a matter of "most" underlings being loyal or not: what I'm thinking of is quite a close personal relationship (it has to be a real two-way relationship, since it doesn't help me being loyal to my boss, if he doesn't know me well enough to be aware of it), and having just one "trusted lieutenant" makes a big difference. Beyond five or six there are probably diminishing returns, and they would be coming too much into competition with each other. It's not unusual for senior business executives to have one or two such followers, though it does generate some suspicion.