There are three types of politician, or political operative, whose talents are prized in governments across the free world.
The first – and you only need one of these – is the visionary. A man or woman not just of intelligence and integrity, but of wisdom. A leader driven by a deep sense of moral purpose and historical mission. These are the people who, down the generations, have worked to ensure that, in Martin Luther King’s words, “the arc of history bends toward justice”; those whose names appear on far-sighted constitutions, hard-won peace accords and enlightened international treaties; those who faced down dictators, brought down poverty and tore down walls; those who abolished slavery, ended segregation and beat apartheid.
Around them, you need a small number of thinkers and strategists; people who can make sense of long-term societal or global challenges and come up with big ideas to meet them. These are the reforming ministers, policy advisors and speech writers; the analysts, horizon scanners and trend spotters.
And then there are the fixers; the people shouting into phones in the political, press and whips offices, or whispering into ears in the lobbies, corridors and bars. These are the people charged with leaking, briefing and planting stories, with exploiting, bending and manipulating procedures and of bribing, threatening and outmanoeuvring opponents. Whichever of their dark arts will get the deal done or the vote won.
All three of them have a job to do all of the time. But their relative importance shifts over time as political circumstances and parliamentary arithmetic change.
Visionaries, supported by a critical mass of thinkers who share their vision and can help them flesh it out, prosper when the government they lead has a healthy majority. Clement Atlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were all leaders who, as well as having the luck of being in the right place at the right time, had the skill to capture the mood of the times, secure a landslide victory at the polls, and use that store of political capital to change the country in fundamental ways.
Fixers, by contrast, matter most when governments don’t have a majority, as was the case in the mid-1970s when Harold Wilson, then Jim Callaghan, saw Labour’s 1974 majority of 3 whittled away, leaving them governing as a minority, propped up by the Liberals. And as was the case for John Major who, despite receiving more votes in 1992 than any prime minister in British history, was rewarded with a majority of just 21 which, by February 1997, had also disappeared. Add in a couple of economic crises – the years of runaway inflation and industrial strife that culminated in the winter of discontent in the late 1970s, and the combination of spiralling interest rates and falling house prices that triggered a recession and led to Britain’s ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s – and it becomes clear why these leaders were unable even to formulate a long-term vision, let alone pursue one.
In the fog of a hung parliament, even the greatest visionary struggles to look beyond the next vote. Which is why, at such times, the strategists are left in the strategy unit and thinkers are left to their thoughts.
A time for fixing...
As a result of the election two weeks ago, we are back in just such a period. June 8th 2017 marks the point from which Britain will be governed, if that isn’t too generous a term, not by a visionary, armed with an ambitious plan to tackle the huge challenges the country faces, but by a diminished and defeated prime minister who didn’t win well enough to lead, but didn’t lose quite badly enough to resign.
So step forward the fixers. And step back Britain, to the politics of 1976 and 1996.
Step forward the Democratic Unionist party, a retro-rump of young-earth creationists, unreconciled to the modern age. Because their wish for narrow political advantage in Northern Ireland cannot be granted and their appetite for hard-line social conservatism cannot be sated, they will no doubt receive the only other promise the prime minister can give them: a series of bribes and blandishments that would make the most cynical lobbying blush.
And step forward every backbench Conservative parliamentarian, elected and unelected (with the House of Lords presumably unbound by the Salisbury Convention), every one of them knowing just how much they can charge for their vote and just how little they will pay for disloyalty. When the prime minister is, in George Osborne’s words, “a dead woman walking”, there is no power of patronage.
So step forward too, the fixers from the No. 10 political office, running the numbers, working the phones, twisting the arms. Step forward the whips, with their little black books and their increasingly desperate threats. And step forward the government lawyers, amending draft Bills to the point of incoherence to accommodate the parochial demands of each and every MP who might vote No instead of Aye.
And then, last but most definitely not least, step forward Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
Prior to the general election it looked as though Britain’s hopelessly weak negotiating position would at least be offset by one key strength: unity. Yes, the EU 27 may hold most of the cards when both sides know an end to free trade between Britain and Europe would hurt us more than them. But the price they pay for their size is their unwieldiness. Getting every member state lined up behind a single position is not easy, and the potential for the UK to divide and rule therefore seemed significant.
But the election has changed that. If David Davis and Michel Barnier shake hands on an aspect of the wider deal on a Friday evening, the risk that Barnier returns on Monday saying Slovene or Portuguese support has evaporated is now no higher, and quite possibly lower, than the risk of Davis coming back saying Kate Hoey or Anna Soubry have changed their position and the deal’s off.
All of which will further damage the prime minister’s credibility and her party’s electoral prospects, making an early election – and the clarity it would bring – both more necessary and less likely. So the fixers will get on with their work in the thickening fog of a hung parliament, and the debris of this summer’s inconclusive election will remain, un-cleared.
...and a time for thinking
There was one further feature of the periods leading up to both the 1979 and 1997 elections that is worthy of mention, however, and which provides a glimmer of hope. On both occasions, while the fixers were practicing their dark arts, a group of visionaries and strategists were thinking hard about how to break free of the prevailing political paradigm and bring about real change. Working with their favoured think tanks (the CPS in the 1970s, the IPPR in the 1990s), small groups of like-minded politicians set about challenging prevailing but failing orthodoxies, and paving the way for three parliamentary terms of far-reaching reform.
The opposition could, if they were able and inclined, use the coming period to do just that; to put together an intellectually coherent, economically literate and politically bold agenda for government.
The circumstances certainly seem propitious. There are good reasons for thinking that over the last few weeks, the national mood has turned decisively, with the burnt wreckage of the Grenfell Tower providing a tragic but powerful symbol of why that might be.
Whether or not the building regulations that governed Grenfell’s recent refurb turn out to have been flouted, or simply too lax, we will find out in time. But what we already know is that, in the nation’s richest borough, scores of Kensington’s poorest residents have perished because someone somewhere put profits before people.
With the tower block smouldering within a stone’s throw of £10 million mansions and £500,000 cars, the pictures tell their own story. There is almost no need for a commentary from Jeremy Corbyn.
The danger for him and his supporters is that they never get beyond campaigning. ‘People before Profit’ is a powerful call to arms, but no government has ever managed to provide for its people without the resources that profits generate.
Whoever wishes to shape the change that is surely coming, needs to use the next months and years not to sloganize, but to do the sort of serious thinking that so far has been conspicuous by its absence. They will need to think hard about how Britain is going to earn its way in the world once it is out of the European Union as the voters, let’s not forget, have demanded it will be. About how Britain can continue to capture globalisation’s many benefits while ensuring that millions of British citizens aren’t left behind. And about how to meet the rising costs of our rapidly ageing population if asset-rich baby-boomers entering retirement are not going to contribute more, as Theresa May had decided, bravely, they should.
They will need to think about how, at a time when Islamists and far right extremists are willing a violent ‘clash of civilisations’, we can build a tolerant society that can resist their provocations without shrinking from the battle of ideas that will have to be fought between enlightenment and bigotry. They will need to think about how, at a time when the terrorist threat-level moves off ‘severe’ only when it rises to ‘critical’, when tensions between Russia and the West are threatening a new Cold War, and when theocratic Iran is seeking to follow totalitarian North Korea into an already unstable nuclear club, they will keep the public safe and the country secure.
They will need to think about the consequences of autonomous and intelligent machines being able, as they soon will be, to run our homes, drive our cars, do our jobs and wage our wars. They will need to think about how to tackle not just Beveridge’s five giants of want, idleness, squalor, ignorance and disease, but three new ones: the three ‘Ds’ of dementia, diabetes and depression – the consequences of our increasingly long lives and our sugary, sedentary yet highly stressful lifestyles. They will need to think about how to see off the existential threat of climate change at a time when a US President, who is as dismissive of scientific facts as he is of any other, has decided to risk exacerbating that threat in the hope of saving American jobs.
And, perhaps most important of all bearing in mind how long these problems will take to solve, they need to think about how best to educate the next generation of voters so that they might make wiser decisions than we as they look to tackle these problems. This doesn’t mean teaching young people what to think – that’s indoctrination, not education. Rather, it means teaching them how to think – giving them the tools of reason, logic, deduction and analysis so they can distinguish theory from fact, fake news from reality and conspiracy from cock-up as they try to hold their political leaders to account.
It’s a lot to think about.
The good news is that while the fixers are busy fixing and the prime minister is busy surviving, those of us in think tanks, research institutes and strategy units are unlikely to be disturbed. But the clock is ticking.