HMS Westminster: A Tale of Two Control Ships

November 15, 2007


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.


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?


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.

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).