The Turnbull attack : A big clunking blow for Gordon Brown?

March 20, 2007

Is it not curious that the former head of the civil service should launch a fierce attack on the Chancellor in an interview that appeared in the Financial Times two days before his budget speech? Might the article illustrate wider leadership issues, as Tony Blair prepares to relinquish the Premiership? To what degree might Lord Turnbull and the FT be seen as engaging in political skirmishes?

An article in the Financial Times yesterday made wider headlines today. The headline seems slightly more strident than those we are accustomed to from the Pink Lady of financial journalism. Former Whitehall chief slams ‘Stalinist’ Brown’it almost shouted.

The Former Whitehall chief is Andrew Lord Turnbull, now a cross-bench peer. His political contributions in that role have recently been confined to three measured speeches, one on proposed reform of Government statistics, and the other two on the Turner report. In one of the Pension speeches he informed the house of his interests, not just as a novice pensioner, but as an advisor to the consulting firm Booze Allen Hamilton, and a wannabe man from the Pru.

In an earlier role he had spent four years as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury working with (to, for, or on behalf of) Gordon Brown. In the FT article, he assessed Gordon as exhibiting

“Stalinist ruthlessness… There has been an absolute ruthlessness with which Gordon has played the denial of information as an instrument of power.”

The interview makes good reading as ammunition in the forthcoming Cameron-Brown battles for the Premiership. These matches are being set up as a two-team tussle between gifted and flexible David, and Powerful but dour Gordon. You might think this resembles another Premiership battle between Manchester United and Chelsea Football clubs. I couldn’t possibly comment.

An unnoticed possibility

The BBC reporting this morning suggested an analysis that had not extended to a close reading of the original FT article. A discussion (on BBC five live) sounded as if it was a little chat, based on the Corporation’s own synoptic news summary of the FT story. It was suggested that the Noble Lord may be so worried about a Gordon Brown Premiership that he had felt compelled to make a calculated statement to the Press at an appropriately damaging moment.

I have been unable to find the answer to an important question. When did the interview take place? The on-line FT version does not tell us. The critical scene-setting sentence ran

‘In an interview with the Financial Times, Lord Turnbull said …’ But was it said ‘In an interview yesterday..’, or was it said ‘In an interview for our post-Budget retrospective on Gordon’s ten years as Chancellor, to appear on Thursday..’

This opens up possibilities beyond the BBC’s suggestion. The FT might have gone for two bites of the cherry, created a pithy and newsworthy story within a background interview for a broader historical analysis of Gordon Brown’s record as Chancellor.

Does this matter?

Only to the extent in which it might help us understand why a vivid description of leadership style appears as a new story. Its novelty lies in the messenger rather than the message, which is pretty much the line being taken by Gordon’s political foes – on both sides of the House.


Fat and the Nanny State

March 12, 2007

_42331321_sirdigbyjones.jpgA report finds that job interviewers in the UK discriminate against fat applicants. Sir Digby Jones, former chief of the CBI, dismisses the issue as a product of political correctness, and further evidence of the excessive influence of the Nanny State.

First let me confess a liking to Sir Digby Jones, who until recently brought a lot of fun and energy to his high profile role as Director General of the Confederation of British Industry. He was then, and still remains, a person of influence, a thought leader and headline catcher. Much the same can be said about Boris Johnson.

You might anticiapte a ‘but’ on its way. Here it is: But are they ‘prats or prophets’? The phrase originated in an article about Digby Jones as far back as September 2002. It appeared in a piece by George Kerevan in the Scotsman.

The context was a controversial speech made to a Scottish business audience, in which Jones warmed to the themes of the shortcomings of the Scottish Assembly, the anti-Englishness and lack of entrepreneurialism of Scottish culture.

The speech prompted the Scottish agriculture minister, Ross Finnie, to refer to Jones as an English prat. There followed reprimands that threatened Finnie’s political career. Kerevan had no such concerns in retaining the term in the title of his article, and the debate was joined by other journalists.

Sir Digby’s no-nonsense public style does remind me of that of Boris Johnson. As it happens, I learned this week-end that Boris had won one of a series of political awards on a BBC programme, voted for by listeners. The award was for the most gaff-prone politician. Within hours, I was listening to Sir Digby who had been invited by the same channel (BBC five live) to comment on a report suggesting that fat people are discriminated against at job interview. He seemed to be operating in the robust vein favoured by Boris. The themes of political correctness, Nanny State, and the prattishness of political commentators rattled around my head, as I tried to work out whether there were any insights to be gained here on thought leadership.

Thought leadership

The notion of a thought leader is entering the vocabulary of business, via its enthusiastic promotion by management consultants, and educators. Textbooks have identified the concept as a promising one for further study. Even Wikipedia (as of midday today) remains uncomfortable that its entry has adequate substance, so there’s scope to offer a perspective for testing and blogging (which has also begun).

One perspective is that a thought leader is someone whose ideas influence and initiate action in others. It has been particularly but not exclusively applied to the creators of substantial and transformational ideas. The more traditional leader also influences and initiates action in others. The distinction is a fuzzy one, to say the least.

Sir Digby’s analysis: why fat people lose out

Sir Digby argued that job interviews reflect human nature. If fat people lose out, it is because they have presented themselves in an unfavourable light at interview. Those fatties who worked at revealing their positive side at interview would win out. Just like he had done.

And why the report should be rubbished

He went on to say that the report was in his view rubbish. In particular, if efforts were now made to legislate to protect fat people at interview, the process would illustrate the excessive concern for political correctness brought about by The Nanny State.

The thought leaders we deserve?

After the interview I felt ambivalent about the argument which had been delivered with not a little panache. Digby, and for me the retained image of Boris, are thought leaders. But what was bothering me? It was later that day that I realized what it was.

A disgruntled listener was phoning in about the recent dismissal of Tory politician Patrick Mercer (for his black bastard remarks explored elsewhere). I heard a generalised outpouring of disgust about political correctness, all too familiar to listeners of phone-in (and readers of blogs). It seemed a diatribe, serving as a substitute for critique, or for what some people refer to as discourse. Those voices and emails come from the powerless and the dispossessed. They are not the voices of thought leaders, although they could be echoing the words they find emotionally satisfying. These come from a certain kind of thought leader. Digby Jones is one. Boris Johnson is another. In accepting their views, we contribute the sustaining the thought leaders we deserve.

They remain so, for as long as we do not challenge them to provide a deeper examination of how the symbolic notions of political correctness and The Nanny State have become such an automatic common enemy for many within our culture.