HMS Westminster: A Tale of Two Control Ships

November 15, 2007

admiral-lord-west.jpg

Two years ago, Admiral West was in control of HMS Westminster directing the international fleet review for the bi-centennial celebrations commemorating the battle of Trafalgar. This week, as newly appointed security minister under the command of Gordon Brown, the former Sea-Lord was taking a little time to find his sea legs

‘I’m just a simple sailor’. The quote by Admiral Lord West on Wednesday November 14th 2007 will become part of contemporary British folk-lore.

The news story cropped up during a period of parliamentary struggles. Gordon Brown, having flourished in the first few months as Prime Minister, had found his Government falling behind in the opinion polls in renewed onslaughts from David Cameron’s conservatives.

The political battles increased in intensity after the summer break (almost as time-honoured as the military practice of a pause to get the harvest in). In the United Kingdom, Her majesty’s loyal government writes the speech which the monarch then reads to her representatives gathered at the Palace of Westminster. The speech is then ritually debated by said representatives.

One of the multiplicity of issues under scrutiny is a bid by the Government to increase the time in which suspects may be held in custody without charging. The debate involves deeply held concerns about liberty and the principle of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus (ad subjiciendum) is Latin for “you may have the body” (subject to examination). It is a writ which requires a person detained by the authorities be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined … Sir William Blackstone, who wrote his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 18th Century, recorded the first use of habeas corpus in 1305. But other writs with the same effect were used in the 12th Century, so it appears to have preceded Magna Carta in 1215 … Michael Zander QC, Emeritus Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, says: “Habeas corpus has a mythical status in the country’s psyche.

Background

The specific circumstances which embroiled Lord West were those accompanying the security measures following the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. The Government under Tony Blair had failed to obtain further legal powers for the police to hold suspects without charge. Gordon Brown, on his appointment in the summer of 2007 attempts to revive and revise the proposals. As part of his idea of a Government of all the talents, Brown appoints Admiral West to a ministerial position, in August, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office.

The newly ennobled Lord West has been set a task to review security in public places. This includes the appointments of non-nationals to the Health Service. This brief was a swift response to one of the first challenges faced by the new Prime Minister. A foiled terrorist attack at Glasgow airport revealed involvement from a terrorist cell including medical specialists who had gained entry to the NHS with inadequate security screening.

The Queen’s Speech

This week the debate on the Queen’s speech drew to a close. Lord West was preparing his report, meeting with various committees, and fitting in a round of press interviews. Gordon Brown was facing a testing Prime Minister’s question time, which would include tricky attacks on his intended security legislation.

The BBC played its part in generating and sustaining the basic story line

Lord West told the BBC at 0820 he had yet to be convinced of the need to extend the 28 day limit, a view at odds to most recent ministerial comments. Just over an hour later, after a visit to Downing Street, he told the BBC that he was actually convinced of the case. He later insisted he had not changed his mind, saying as a “simple sailor” he had not chosen his words well.

The blogging community seizes on the story with enthusiasm.

Why the hell have we got a ‘simple sailor‘ in charge of our anti-terrorism strategy? Were all the complicated ones busy?

What’s going on?

This is a rather nice example of the dynamics of a modern political story. At face-value, the reader is left with the impression of bungling incompetence from people who should know better. Stereotypes are reinforced. Brown is a control freak who manipulates others into shows of puppet-like obedience. Lord West is expected to toe the party line at all times, like the other puppets.

Students of leadership are aware that beliefs tend to be grounded in ‘common-sense’ assumptions which can simplify the picture to an extent that we ignore aspects that are uncomfortable, or that do not fit in.

It tends to be worth looking beyond the story for those inconvenient facts. Bloggers are strong at unearthing facts others would prefer to leave buried. However, righteous indignation is often more of an influence than efforts to examine and critique a story. For righteous indigation and balance, you have to go back to respected sources. Even that’s a matter of judgement. The Guardian’s view is not everyone’s idea of a balanced analysis, but it did seem to reach another level of insight here.

During his naval and governmental career, security minister Lord West has repeatedly spoken out against government policy. Before he stood down as head of the navy last year, Lord West, who distinguished himself in the Falklands war when he was the last to leave the sinking HMS Ardent, warned that cuts to the service would leave it unable to protect Britain’s coastline.

The former first Sea Lord has condemned the decision by the Ministry of Defence to allow Royal Navy hostages held by Iran to sell their stories, has harboured serious doubts about the legality of the invasion of Iraq, and consulted lawyers over whether naval personnel could face war crimes charges.
Despite, or possibly because of, his criticism of Tony Blair’s administration, West was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for security and counter-terrorism in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”. His remit included conducting a review Britain’s terror laws, which has led him – once again – to put himself at odds with the official government line ….

A case of herding cats?

In an earlier post we reported on an answer to a question on leadership in the House of Lords. It was put to another distinguished naval commander, Admiral Lord Michael Boyce. His reply was instructive:

Question: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

Answer: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats!

The additional talents recruited into Gordon Brown’s Government are a new species, with evidence of some of the characteristics of the cross-bench feral felines.

Leadership Lessons?

Where to begin? A cautionary tale, indeed for newly appointed Ministers, and maybe newly appointed Prime Ministers. But are there lessons for a wider range of students of leadership?

Might the case be worth studying by any military officer considering a new career in the political arena for indications of necessary changes in comunications and decision-making styles?

Or might there be lessons for any professional taking up a role a distance away from his or her previous career path?

Above all, what actions and by whom might have resulted in a different and more desirable outcome?


What can be learned from the ending of the Brown honeymoon?

October 14, 2007

thieving-magpie-tin-tin.jpg

The Gordon Brown honeymoon is over. He has seen his party’s lead in the opinion polls whither away. His handling of the non-election has been branded cowardly and inept. His rival David Cameron scores overwhelmingly in parliamentary debate. What leadership lessons can be learned from the unfolding story?

This is the current situation. Gordon Brown is widely reported as having lost the initiative he held since his appointment as Prime Minister. The fall from grace can be located in time easily.

Prior to the labour party conference, the honeymoon period was continuing, and the main question was whether a snap election could destroy not just David Cameron, by maybe the Conservative party itself.

During the Labour conference, Mr Brown’s speech at worse did not seem to damage his or his party’s prospects. Yet the snap-election story continued to build momentum. At the start of the month [October 2007] it seemed to have been settled. There would be an election within a month or so.

Then the Conservative party conference, a well-received speech by David Cameron, and the news stories piled up full of bad news for Brown. The week following the election added to his woes in and out of Westminster.

You learn a lot from what surprises you

Over the last few months I have been frequently surprised by the ebb and flow of political events. So what were the surprises? What was the learning?

Remember the passing of Tony Blair from office? I was surprised at the time by suggestions that portrayed Gordon Brown as a person psychologically unfit to lead his party, or the country. The contrast with business leaders is quite stark. The literature of the dark side of leadership is mounting, and it is easier to find examples of leaders who do not manifest symptoms of narcissism, with a dash of other fancily-termed psychotic tendencies, than to find examples of well-balanced (‘abnormally normal’?) individuals.

Then I was surprised over aspects of the so-called Brown Bounce. That nice theory was made almost impossible to evaluate, because Gordon’s arrival coincided with a particularly turbulent time, during which the New Prime Minister acted in a competent and reassuring manner. [Remember the joke that had been told about him during his personal campaign to consolidate his election campaign? The trouble with Gordon, the ironic joke went, is that he is all substance. Ho, ho. ].

The honeymoon period is now over. One surprise is that no-one pointed to the curious contrast between the bounce, and the herd-mentality that had dubbed Brown a pathologically-flawed no-hoper for Labour, prior to election. The bounce transcended all those concerns expressed in the media?

Over the last two weeks, I have also been surprised by the speed at which opinions about Brown and Cameron have swung back. The ratings are now [14.10.2007] roughly where they were before Mr Cameron hit policy problems a few months ago. Now, Cameron is as a hot a favourite for destroying Brown politically, as Brown was for destroying Cameron, a few weaks ago.

I was further surprised at the damage politically the Gordon Brown has sustained over his assertion that his decision not to call an election had been nothing to do with opinion-polls in marginal seats. The statement has become taken as evidence that the Prime Minister is irretrievably untrustworthy.

The second event, the afore-mentioned pre-Budget speech by Darling, is similarly taken as a sign of Government duplicity, specifically over Magpie politics. Specifically, like thieving Magpies, the Government has stolen the shiny baubles plucked from the Conservative lips, including inheritance tax from non-doms.

There’s enough mud for everyone to play in

The speech from Alistair Darling infuriated the conservatives, and particularly the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Alistair is in the Brown mould (measured and a bit, how can I put it, non-dom Scottish). Osborne is more of the smooth but menacing inclination, unafraid to take the fight to the muckier side of the farmyard. His immediate response to Darling’s pre-budget statement was a well-mounted piece of aggression at the calumny of his immediate opponent and the forces behind him, all the way up to King Gordon.

The next morning he had simmered down enough to articulate the view that the public would now be able to choose between the party of principled and honourable statesmanlike politicians, (the conservatives) and the cynical duplicitous lot on the other side (labour).

Overall he had had a good twenty-four hours, and is evidently on the way of becoming a dangerous opponent for the new Chancellor. Nice one George. Nice, in the sense of dangerously nasty.

The various outbusts of anger left me conscious of the farmyard metaphor, that there’s a lot of mud out there, likely to spread itself liberally on to all concerned. Voters may find it confirms their suspicions if they are repeatedly told that there are a lot of cynical duplicitous politicians (CDPs) out there.

On the other hand, drawing attention to this will not mean they will buy the proposition that all CDPs are to be found among the ranks of Gordon’s followers, thus enabling the conservatives convincingly to claim the high moral ground as The Principled Party.

Leadership lessons?

Some are immediately apparent. Gordon Brown contributed to the way in which this story developed. I rather think he moved back towards damage limitation in claiming responsibility for the election frenzy. (However tempting it might have been to bang on about the media).

There was another misjudgment when he insisted that he would not have been influenced by opinion polls in his decision, even if they indicated a majority of hundred after an immediate election.

The leadership principle is to retain some of that valuable commodity, wriggle room, whenever possible. Put another way, practice the art of the Delphic Oracle.

Find a creative way of dealing with the question at two levels.
Avoid yes or no answers when these are over-simplifications (which they almost always are).

No-one will get it right every time, but the frequency of poor moves, and the damage sustained, is likely to be reduced. At least, that’s if you believe leaders are made not born, and are strengthened through learning from their mistakes.


The date of the general election is fixed beyond doubt

October 4, 2007

The date of the next general election in the United Kingdom will be announced imminently. This is a belief now fixed beyond doubt in the mind of politicians and political commentators, who even believe that the day will be either the first or second Thursday of November 2007

As the Conservative Party Conference drew to a close, uncertainty over the next general election was virtually over. Professional gambling firms placed November as odd-on favourite. Commentators also shifted from ‘likely’ to ‘probable’. In the conference hall it was clear that the party activists had reached a curious and heightened state of excitement.

The story changes

At the start of the Conference season, a few weeks ago, there was little talk of a general election. Interest was mainly on whether poor old Ming Campbell was going to survive, (he did), and whether an heir apparent could be identified (Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne).

Then at the Labour party conference, the story was at first whether wooden Gordon would survive comparison with charismatic David. This notion was weakened as various opinion polls suggested that Gordon was increasingly rated as more capable in a crisis than David. At this point my own perception began to diverge from that of the emerging story, that that the new Prime Minister was preparing for a snap General Election.

What had Gordon Brown said to have left this impression? Not for the first time, I found myself reminded of the phenomena impression management and sense making. A story was developing to help those involved deal with their deeper psychological needs.

Lack of trust helps create a story

Taken out of context, Gordon Brown’s speech could be observed as a politician doing what politicians do, presenting himself and his party as favourably as possible. The reactions of the political observers and activists was quite different. Elsewhere I have written of how fear and suspicion can turn into conviction that something very bad is about to happen. The threat has become psychologically potent.

Coverage of the election by Press and Electronic media become more frenzied. To such an extent, that not saying there was not going to be an election was taken as evidence there would be one (hope you get my drift). The news becomes “Gordon Brown hasn’t ruled an election out” Or, “He hasn’t made up his mind but is thinking had about it”.

Then every statement and action of anyone offering a view is interpreted in these terms. The conference speech is demonstrated to be one designed to kick off an election campaign. For example, Gordon hardly mentioned the conservatives (or the other political parties). That’s blatant electioneering, pretending to be above such knockabout matters. He hardly mentioned Iraq. Later the conservatives quoted the puny number of words devoted to Iraq in the speech. So there, the point is scientifically buttressed.

More straws in the wind
Then, more straws in the wind. The Prime Minister’s diary is being rejigged. That clears the way for a General Election. Even if he doesn’t decide to go to the country in November, all these actions are about outmanoeuvring the conservatives, those bastards to be ground into the dust, in the typically restrained and considered words of Lord Kinnock, at a fringe meeting this week.

Why this all seems a bit hysterical

I just don’t get it. The views of political commentators have converged on the significance of a general election. Gordon Brown could have stopped such speculation if he had wanted to. Perhaps. If he could. If he had to. But not just because he could. Now, the media argue, if he decides not to hold an election, it will demonstrate he has bottled it.

The sort of mood around at present seems to me to be that of ritualized posturing that conceals nervousness. I’m reminded of herd behaviour. The combined galloping herd of media and political hacks are galloping about, instinctively sticking close together in a state of panic, seemingly unaware that ‘it’s not the election, stupid’.

If the Prime Minister now avoids an election he’s timid. Afraid he won’t win. If he does, it’s because he’s afraid that the economy will be in a worse state in a year or two. At least, that’s the analysis of former Chancellor Ken Clarke, remembering Clinton’s motto always that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.

In the disdainful words of Margaret Thatcher many years ago, he’s frit. Challenged that she might ‘cut and run’ she responded to questions by Michael Foot and some barracking by Dennis Healy.

The right hon. Gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit? Could not take it? Cannot stand it? If I were going to cut and run, I should have gone after the Falklands [when her political standing was at the highest it would ever be].

A political insight

Listening carefully to insiders interviewing insiders, I arrived at a political insight. The view heard, and the herd view is a genuine belief that Gordon Brown’s actions are all part of carefully prepared plan to gain short-term electoral advantage to reinforce the decision to call an election.

During the conference, we learn that Mr Brown is going to Iraq. More electioneering. On the brief visit he announces a troop reduction. Even more electioneering. Could his words be shown to be a form of stealth electioneering, this time taxing credulity?

The anger expressed by two former Conservative leaders, John Major and Ian Duncan Smith in interviews was intense and utterly convincing.

What David did next

David Cameron made a speech that was billed as significant for the very future of the conservative party. I will reconstruct my notes for a further blog. The test was now whether David’s assured style could prevail against Gordon’s weighty woodenness.

Suffice to say that the speech was reported as impressive in style. I take the BBC view, as that venerated agency still attempts to provide a balanced view of the political scene.

It was also a performance that fired up the party faithful.

He spoke without notes … warning the audience that it might be a bit “messy”. It wasn’t. It was a highly polished performance – and a lot more measured, serious and policy-heavy than we are used to from Mr Cameron. He once again tried to cast himself as the voice of optimism and sincerity – compared with the “cynical” Gordon Brown, who was trapped in the “old politics”.
Mr Cameron ended with a challenge to Gordon Brown to call an election.
Come on Gordon, make my day.
But it was exactly what the party faithful wanted to hear. He told them to “get out and fight” for the changes they want to make and they cheered him to the rafters.

Fear and threat had temporarily been abolished in the hall.


With friend like these …Gordon and the Unions

September 8, 2007

welsh-battle.jpg The new Prime Minister faces the annual conference season. It will be a testing time for Gordon Brown during which we may learn a little more of his longer-term plans and short-term tactics related to industrial relations

This week, Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union, brought his transport members out on a lightening strike, to the inconvenience of London’s commuters, and the fury of London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone.

‘Nobody loves us we don’t care’

I was reminded of Millwall’s football chant when I read that Bob Crow was a Millwall fan. According to a reliable source, the song can be read as postmodern irony associated with the defiance of Bermondsey’s dockland’s culture towards its detractors.

The song was a reaction to what the Millwall fans perceived to be sustained, exaggerated and unfair criticism of their behaviour by the press and the stereotypical image of all Millwall fans as hooligans, perpetuated by certain sections of the media in general.

I have heard it remarked that at Girton College before male students were admitted, the gals also had been known to chorus the Millwall anthem. Perhaps that was another postmodern gesture, indicating distain for the behaviors displayed towards Girton’s students by Oxford’s chauvinistic males.

But to return to our main story … This week, Bob’s actions brought his members out on strike, and dragged London Mayor Ken Livingstone into the dispute with a few far-from-brotherly remarks.

As the BBC put it

For Ken Livingstone, its decision was unfathomable.
“This must be the first time in history of a union going on strike when everyone has acceded to their demands,” he said.
Mr Livingstone added that he could not “explain the mindset” of the RMT

Bob Crow

To his many critics, Bob Crow is an unwanted throwback to the

worst excesses of 1970s union militancy… To his supporters, however, the 46-year-old leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union is simply a resolute defender of workers’ rights.

RMT members may hold Mr Crow in great esteem, but he is certainly not liked by the Labour government, which has historically branded him “a wrecker” … Back in 2004 his hostility to the Labour came to a head when the RMT broke its ties with the party – a link which dated back to 1899 – following a row over the RMT’s decision to allow local branches to affiliate with other parties.

Bob and the Treaty

Mr Crow has also been in the headlines for his support to the movement calling for a referendum over the new EU treaty. We have commented on this in an earlier post, as had The BBC

The RMT’s motion asks the TUC to campaign for a “no” vote, if a referendum is held on whether to adopt the treaty. Its general secretary, Bob Crow, told the BBC: “They [the government] went to the British people on the promise there would be a referendum … What we want him [Gordon Brown] to do is implement what his manifesto was.”

What’s going on?

The reported stories indicate that the RMT union is embroiled in an industrial dispute. Also it is becoming involved in the wider debate on Britain’s role in the EU. It joins a rainbow alliance ranged against the Government in calling for a referendum.

Without more information we have to speculate on whether the two stories are interconnected. The imminence of the so-called (political) conference season suggests they are.

Whatever the intentions of Mr. Crow, the intentions of Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron are clear. Both are seeking to hold on to their territory on Middle-earth, and perhaps expand it. But to do this, Mr. Brown was to reassure the inhabitants of Middle- earth that he is in no way in thrall to the dark forces, particularly those of the left. Mr. Cameron is also having to calm concerns that he is abandoning his allies from the right.

With these considerations in mind, neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Cameron wants to be too friendly to Mr. Crow.

So that old refrain may well be rather apt. Nobody loves me and I don’t care, and I can be very difficult when I get upset.

Outcome. Skirmishes. Casualties mainly to the front-line troops caught up in a rather complicated set of political moves. Troops watch on sympathetically from the ranks of the Post Office workers. They are caught in a similar difficult position to defend.

Acknowlegement

Image is from Google, citing Ben Becker’s armies of painted warriors as a representation of a battle beween the Celts and the Romans.


Tactics for a general election: The significance of Kerr’s Folly

August 28, 2007

The next General Election may be several years away. It is already shaping the thoughts and actions of the main political parties. While the new European Treaty may be of secondary importance to voters, it could play a vital part in the outcome of the election.

Conservatives and Labourites alike should be thinking beyond the obvious regarding the treatment of the New European Treaty. The issue is very much on the political agenda. The Government stands accused of breaking an election pledge. So how damaging might it be to Gordon Brown?

Background.

This week all the pressure seemed to be on Gordon Brown. Two unions, The GMB and RMT, are calling for a referendum by tabling motions for the TUC annual conference. This adds from the left to calls from the Conservatives and UKIP parties from the right. Presumably the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats would also welcome a referendum. This suggests that the government faces opposition from inside and outside its ranks to its decision to avoid a referendum.

Kerr’s Folly

A classic paper in the Academy of Management Journal in 1975 by Steven Kerr drew attention to ‘the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B’. The essential point made by the author is that the key to effective implementation of plans is understanding how reward systems work. Or, as Bill Starbuck memorably put it, ‘it’s the reward system, stupid’.

According to Kerr, numerous examples exist of reward systems that foul-up because the types of behavior rewarded are those that the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all. He explores this in various social, economic, and political fields. The paper leads us to the notion that politicians are all too-aware of the process through which the electorate wishes to obtain one thing and might appear to be of rewarding the politicians by voting for them. However, experience has shown that the electorate may wish for one thing and punish the politican by voting in effect to deny the policies approved of. Specifically, in politics, policy is couched in a deliberately vague manner, lest the electorate punish the ‘honest’ politician for spelling our any unpleasant consequences of that policy.

The [American] citizenry supposedly wants its candidates for public office to set forth operative goals, making their proposed programs clear, and specifying sources and uses of funds. However, since operative goals are lower in acceptance, and since aspirants to public office need acceptance .. most politicians prefer to speak only of official goals, at least until after the election. … The [American] voter typically punishes (withholds support from) candidates who frankly discuss where the money will come from, rewards politicians who speak only of [policy] goals, but hopes that candidates (despite the reward system) will discuss the issues [revealing potential pain to the voter].

In other words, Kerr’s folly indicates how we get the political behaviors and elect the politicians we deserve

The Behaviors we Deserve

It becomes the received political wisdom for a political leader to find ways of presenting policy with avoidance of mention of its costs, leaving that to the opponents of the policy. This happens to be one of the strengths of an open society. For example, in the UK, Conservative policy for releasing citizens from the burdens of taxation have to be justified increasingly with specific explanations of funding for maintaining social institutions such as the Health Service.

The Treaty, The Election and Kerr’s Folly

A knowledge of the theory of Kerr’s Folly might not win an election. But it explains and perhaps helps predict political ‘moves’.
Let’s see how it might be working at present. Gordon Brown is pressed ‘to stick to an election commitment’. He is benefitting from being seen as a ‘Not like Blair’ statesman. He is thus vulnerable to accusations of behaving in a Blair-like way, involving a bit of ducking and weaving. Thus he risks the displeasure of a proportion of the electorate, demonstrated by a slump in opinion polls.

In its original form, Ferr’s Folly suggests that the electorate may want to punish a politican for avoiding any tricky behavior, spin, or obfuscation. But if so, the folly is that the self-same people appear to deprive themselves of evicting such politicians by discounting the undesired behaviors, and when it coms to the vital vote, cast it on different grounds. In other words, if the electorate thinks a referendum will not really make much difference presumably to self-interest, a slump in opinion polls interpreted as disapproval on general grounds moral grounds will ultimately not count for much.

So, should David Cameron choose to fight over the principle of Labour’s broken promise? Probably not. One of the reasons is that there is still considerable ‘wriggle-room’ for the Government. The finer details of the logical or even moral case are not so critical as the evidence of personal disadvantage of the issue to voters.

The Knight’s Move

But battles are rarely predictable. A sudden unexpected surprise, like a devious Knight’s Move in Chess, changes the entire game.
Suppose Mr Cameron does go big on this attack on Mr Brown and his failure to stick to the Manifesto of the last Election? This may present the Prime Minister with the opportunity to be ‘forced’ to accept a call for an early election. If so, be sure it will be at the time of his choosing. It is not unknown in the heat of battle to drive the enemy into a more favorable position.


Silence of the leaders in Postal and Climate Protests

August 21, 2007

images1.jpgWhen leaders are silent, the absence of noise may be revealing. David Cameron and Gordon Brown remain remarkably quiet over the Postal Dispute. This week, their silence extended to the climate change protests at Heathrow

As the great Sherlock Holmes taught us, the hardest thing to see is what is missing from a story. One of the functions of the Press is to point to the gaps, the spaces between words. To drag a response out of politicians, for example.

I mentioned in an earlier post a lack of contribution from our political leaders into the on-going postal dispute . The Prime Minister may indeed have been attending to a host of urgent issues over the last two months. That might just explain it. He can’t be expected to speak out on everything. But what about his ministers? Isn’t that a more surprising silence?

Then there’s David Cameron. Why hasn’t he pointed out that Gordon Brown has been guilty of inaction over the dispute? And why has Ming Campbell been so silent, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats?

The silence of our political leaders this week has extended to story of the protestors against the third runway at Heathrow. Which, inevitably is also about political policy over global warming.

Leaders have to choose where to stand and fight

There can be little doubt that Brown and Campbell have thought about and discussed the Postal Strike, and the events this week around the perimeter of Heathrow Airport. For whatever reasons, they have made deliberate decisions to say nothing. Silence is significant.

The press has shown minimal interest in the first of these stories. But it was for its duration particularly interested in the second. A Daily Telegraph piece about the protest resulted in as many on-line replies I have ever come across in reply to a news story.

What happens next? One day after the protests, the story is off the news agenda. Try finding follow-up reports after the one-week protest ended on Sunday August 19th 2007. The most comprehensive account I could find appeared in The Guardian in a slightly truncated form of the blog by environmental activist George Monbiot.

This week, David Cameron chose to target possible closures of local hospitals. Ming Campbell was busily drawing attention to the tricky matter of troop withdrawals from Iraq. David and Ming have chosen where they wish to fight for the moment. Gordon Brown keeps his powder dry, and his position secure, garrisoning his political forces behind the barricades of impressive opinion polls of recent weeks.

What conclusions can we draw?

If we shift the military metaphor to that of a military game, the chess concept of Zugswang comes to mind. In chess it sometimes is worse for you if you have to move, better if you your opponent has to move. It’s like meeting another car in a narrow lane without passing spots. Someone has to reverse out of there. If that retreat is not acceptable to either, you have a stalemate or no result.

The point is, each player is reluctant to move. But in chess the rules of the game force one player to move or forfeit the game. A player in Zugswang moves, and if the opponent knows how to continue, there is a forced win (or more subtly a forced weakening of position).

The lack of action on either side suggests there is a zugswang-type position building up. Cameron watches Brown. Brown watches Cameron. Neither can find a satisfactory active move. Tick follows Tock follows tick.

Why might this be so? The specific contexts of the two examples have to be explored more deeply. The outlook for the Post Office Union looks bleak. Mr Brown seems have accepted the broad strategy position for its modernization developed under the Blair regime. Either that, or he may be biding his time before making an intervention. Cameron wishes above all to secure the moderate political ground, but it requires a leap of imagination that I for one am incapable of making, to find a way in which he could offer strong support in favour of the Union position. There are too many ways in which the stance could be claimed to be anti-progressive.

However, the Heathrow protest is rather different. Mr Cameron would like to be seen as a strong supporter of environmental causes. In this case, it could be seen as a progressive move to find some common cause against the Government’s transport policy. His advisors will be assessing the significance of the volume and tenor of responses to the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above.

According to Monbiot

We haven’t prevented runaway climate change by camping beside Heathrow and surrounding the offices of BAA, nor did we expect to do so. But we have made it harder for … unheard people to be swept aside, and harder for the government to forget that its plan for perpetual growth in corporate utopia is also a plan for the destruction of life on earth

He may well be on to something.

With grateful of acknowledgement for the image Silence of the lambs from Flickr. by Victoriano Great photograph.


Honeymoon. What honeymoon?

August 12, 2007

caribbean-honeymoon1.jpgTalk of a Gordon Brown Bounce in the polls in England has been linked to the question of how long does a political honeymoon last. In David Cameron’s case, the answer seems to be as long as there was no attractive competitor around.

The notion of a political honeymoon remains unresolved. Much talk has been make in the UK of the period of Gordon Brown’s initial popularity as Prime Minister. Polls have placed him, and his party’s prospects high. High enough to set Conservatives on alert at prospects of an early General Election. At the same time, the popularity of David Cameron declines both in opinion polls, and among influence-makers as reported in the media.

Blair and Cameron

Suppose we are interested in the nature of a leadership honeymoon?. How long might a new leader be granted the good will of those close to him or her? Before addressing the current case, let’s look at the earlier honeymoon periods of Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Cameron won the leadership of the Conservatives in a blaze of positive publicity about his potential for transforming his party. In this respect he had a positive impact which had similarities with that of Tony Blair on his arrival as leader of the labour party a decade earlier.

Both made conscious efforts to signal change. Blair succeeded in exploiting a highly-charged issue, the Clause Four moment. Cameron is believed to be still searching for such a focus, in his attempts to transform his party to greater acceptability among voters. His early efforts signalled a conscious effort to dispell the image of the Conservatives as the nasty party. He also sought more middle ground around environmental issues, and social issues.

In the processes of seeking change, Blair and Cameron hit opposition, but were able to represent their respective internal opposition as traditionalists resisting reform.

Unfreeze – refreeze

Years ago, Kurt Lewin suggested that great cultural changes may be seen as processes in which social beliefs become unfrozen for a period, and then refrozen. He was much pre-occupied by the rise of Nazism. Later the freeze-unfreeze-refreeze concept became a foundation for explaining changes in a wide range of social and cultural circumstances. It has some relevance as a starting point for thinking about political honeymoons. Lewin though of social groups as stabilized within a field of forces (force field). A potential threat to the system will produce substantial counter-changes. A leader produces the threat. Or should we think of the threat as producing the leader?

The outcome is that the acceptance of a new leader will be followed by the ‘refreezing’ process as the group members engage in whatever psychological processes contribute to the readjustment.

In Stage One of Blair’s leadership the unfreezing within the party was accelerated during his election campaign as party leader, and then refrozen on his victory. This internal process was confirmed in his wider victory nationally.

In hindsight, we can make sense of the decline of Tony Blair’s political popularity as deriving from the role he played in British Foreign Policy. Within that, his part in the Iraq conflict and his relationship with President Bush make convenient labels for evidence of his poor leadership actions and judgement.

Pressure built up on Blair’s leadership position from accumulated pressures of repeated bad-news stories in Iraq. Maybe, if the honeymoon metaphor can be stretched that far, there were different specific moments of disenchantment for different people, rather than a single tipping point. An early one might have been the ‘dodgy dossier’ affair and the death of civil servant David Kelly. For others, a specific ‘moment of truth’ might have been some particularly horrific incident in Post-Saddam Iraq, or some farcical media shot of Bush and Blair engaged in a public display of affection.

Meanwhile pressures for change and opportunities to exploit Blair’s unpopularity were building up within and outside the Government. The Conservatives became sensitized to a possible escape from their period out of office. For them, the pressures eventually were released at the party conference which acclaimed Cameron their leader and saviour.

For David Cameron, his political honeymoon was to sustain itself quite nicely well beyond the mythical one hundred days . Accusations of lack of substance were easily deflected. The new leader was not going to rush (like Blair might have done) into hasty promises.

Blair, over this period, although deeply unpopular is reluctant to stand down. The heir-apparent Gordon Brown appears too eager to step into the job. Gordon is represented as a potential disaster for Labour. An inadequate megalomaniac. (Blair while unpopular remains skilled at hand to hand combat, in his public battles (speeches, Prime Minister’s Question Times). The unpopularity of Blair sustains Cameron’s honeymoon but his rhetorical skills help Blair to hang on to ‘the moment of his choosing’ to depart.

When Brown took over from Blair

Brown arrives as Leader of the party and country. A welter of national threats arrive on cue. Terror attack, floods, the plague in the shape of a Foot & Mouth outbreak. Brown the gauche, the megalomaniac, the unelected Prime Minister responds in a reassuring way. His actions are largely seen as primarily in the public interest. Which is another way of saying they are seen as not simply conducted in order to win public approval.

Over roughly the same time internal of rather less than a hundred days, Cameron’s position sustains a severe battering. Critics emerge from the ranks of erstwhile supporters.

Leadership honeymoon as a systems effect

Taking this approach, a leaders’ honeymoon period is one component within the ebb and flow of the struggles for political survival. Cameron and Brown complete for survival. Brown’s honeymoon period impacts on Cameron’s as surely as the moon above works on the tides below.

How long does a political honeymoon last? There is no answer in terms of a specified time-period. Maybe astrologers have been right all along. The truth lies in the stars. In this example, as Blair’s brilliance faded, Cameron’s shone the brighter. Then, as Brown’s star ascended, Cameron’s was fated to decline.

To go more deeply

The Great Man theory of Leadership has been around since the days of Thomas Carlyle.

It has more recently fallen into disrepute.

Peter Senge’s brilliant descriptions of systems stability and systems breakdown are also worth considering as an alternative approach to astrology. His excellent diagrams of organisational dynamics could be put to use in predicting the dynamics of political systems.

Maybe Darwinian connections can be found, with the possibility of exploring how a honeymoon exists as the period between two epochs (punctuated equilibrium model).


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