What is the purpose of Nick Clegg, British Deputy Prime Minister?

Several newspaper columnists recently have asked rhetorically, “what is the purpose of Nick Clegg?”

In Mexico on Tuesday March 29th, when asked what outcomes he envisaged or wished for from his government’s involvement in Libya, he offered the following reassurance to those back home who are paying for it and the airmen who are risking their lives: according to his spokesman, he (Nick Clegg) accepted that the power vacuum that would follow Colonel Gaddafi’s departure from power could result in a hard-line Islamic jihadist regime, but “we” (who exactly does he include in this collective pronoun?) “are prepared to take a gamble on who comes next”.  On another occasion the hapless Clegg’s policy on university tuition fees was picked up by the Mexican president himself who suggested that British students should go to study in Mexico.

Political System’s Real Problem

Nick Clegg illustrates the fundamental problem of British politicians, namely the lack of suitable preparation for tackling complex situations and systems before entering government.

Democratic government, any rate as practised in the English-speaking world, is the only serious activity, except that of directors of public companies, for which no formal or even informal training is required.

Clegg’s public utterances are all moralistic in tone – what desirable outcomes, in his view, there should be – not how realistically can the outcomes actually be achieved.  This moralistic approach is exactly what you would expect from someone of early middle age with no serious job of work behind him, but coming from an exceptionally privileged background, who at university read Social Anthropology.  This is a subject which has no settled framework of agreed theory, but is more than anything a subjective commentary on what has happened in the past relationships between groups of people, but leaving out serious engagement with the central requirement for the vast majority of individuals throughout history – how to provide for themselves and their families.

And this is the key point.  An industrial nation is a web of literally hundreds of millions of different entities, in Britain’s case 62 million individuals, 3 million firms, 8 million public sector workers, 19 million private sector workers, all having individually and in groups, myriads of concerns and relationships – jobs, pensions, health, education, transport, social activities, churches, charities and so on.

Engaging usefully with even a small part of this enormous system requires a huge amount of disciplined, intensive work, checking, cross-checking, consulting others, the sort of approach which really only comes, even in miniature, from running a business, or training for one of the two great professions, engineering and medicine, which absolutely have to be got right day in day out, if catastrophe is not to be a regular feature of daily life.

Most politicians, like Nick Clegg and David Cameron, really have only words and phrases, mostly second hand, to draw on, aided by native intelligence (a lot in Cameron’s case) to learn on the job.  But the larger a system is, the longer it takes to respond to any initiative. Britain’s political class eschews any form of long-term planning, saying, “it doesn’t work”, much as one would say that the design of cars or aeroplanes, say, in the hands of those with no technical training, “doesn’t work”.

But the political class doesn’t eschew grand long-term moral gestures especially when they involve foreign travel, setting enormously damaging objectives for their own country for CO2 emissions, for instance, without the faintest idea how this could be physically achieved and at what cost to the maintenance of viable energy and electricity supplies.  Likewise their complete inability over decades to grip Britain’s transport system – airports, railways, roads, underlines the need to develop a system of government which can look and plan for at least 30 years ahead.

So what could be done?

In this short post, there is space only to introduce the concept of qualifications for MPs and Ministers as the three first steps to creating a competent form of government.  First, all aspiring Members of Parliament should be required to sit and pass an examination on the British Constitution, the major elements of the judicial system, of the economy, and the relationship with the major important international organisations Britain belongs to – the UN, NATO and the EU.  This wouldn’t be a tricky exam – just factual, like the current citizenship test – but passing at least at A-grade GCSE standard would ensure that MPs actually knew the important basics of their profession.

Second, for aspiring government ministers, before they expect or hope to have office, they should pass at A-level standard an examination on the functioning of government – the civil service departments, budgets, business legislation, the balance of payments, the health service, education, local government, the difference between fiscal and monetary policy, the concepts of system – the existence of all of which will in one way or another act as constraints on freedom of action unless specifically recognised at the beginning of any project of change or reform.  Passing such an exam would ensure that Ministers were not absolute beginners in the short time they are likely to have in which to do something useful in office.  Third, no one should be elected MP under the age of 35.  This would enable them to achieve something in life to which they can return when they leave Parliament.

Apart from these basic stipulations as to the politicians themselves, it should be recognised that no business or organisation of any size can be run with 23 people in its governing committee – which in the British case is the Cabinet.  In practice it is bypassed by Prime Ministers.  Around 5 is about the maximum number that anyone can relate to decide on and manage change in any organisation.  This was the number of senior ministers which Churchill had in his famous War Cabinet.  The rule of 5’s gives a simple guide to the maximum number of layers of management needed below the boss as a function of the total number of employees – 25 one layer, up to 125 two layers – up to 625 three layers and so on.  Thirty thousand employees would require on this rule a maximum of 6 management levels.  So, as a start on the path to good governance, why not have a proper Cabinet of 5 ministers, each with around 4 slightly less senior ministers reporting to them?

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