Gordon Brown dispatched as unfit for purpose

May 15, 2007

an_honourable_deception.jpgIn its Dispatches program, Channel Four asks ‘Is Gordon Brown fit for purpose?’ The treatment by Peter Oborne purported to be a forensic analysis, demonstrating the dangers that might be brought to the country if Brown becomes the next Prime Minister. We compare the treatment to that offered by Adam Curtis in The Trap.

Channel 4. Last night I switched on a Dispatches program which promised an informed perspective on the Labour party’s leadership. I missed the first few minutes of the broadcast, and found myself watching a somewhat agitated presenter breaking news of some pending disaster. Tone and worlds were slightly less apocalyptic than an Orson Welles announcing that the Martians had landed.

No, I was watching the programme I had tuned in for. Perhaps the title indicated the line it would take: Gordon Brown: Fit for purpose?

Peter Oborne

The intense presenter was celebrated journalist Peter Oborne. His thesis was, essentially, that the country faced the very real prospect of acquiring a pathologically flawed leader. Perhaps the title was a giveaway. It is a fine specimen of its kind. Arresting, disturbing, compelling the would-be viewer to tune in.

Oborne, a favorite target for Private Eye, has in the past produced such pieces for Channel 4 as Why Politicians Can’t Tell The Truth (because they obsessively pander to the floating voter), and for the Evening Standard, Why the US is now our great enemy (because they ignore Global Warming). He has also done a piece on why Alistair Campbell has had a malign impact on politics (a view emotionally put by Michael Howard, face-to-face with Campbell, on Newsnight a few evenings ago). And a piece on why Robert Mugabe is a tyrant and what we should do about it.

The real and present threat

So Peter has a nose for a threat, preferably a big hairy threat of national or global scale. Nor can he be seen as a simplistic ranter. Although there is not much doubt that he does rant. Which makes his apparently rational approach rather interesting. His methodology is that of the scientist in search of the truth. His manner is that of those obsessive individuals whose behaviors frighten him into his own intense responses.

According to Channel Four

Over the last nine months Dispatches has carried out the most in-depth study ever done for television on the Chancellor, interviewing cabinet ministers, MPs, top civil servants, economists, journalists and friends. The programme, presented by Peter Oborne, forensically examines why these claims have been made by some of Gordon Brown’s colleagues


Yes, the ‘evidence’ was presented in an apparently forensic style, assembled into a dossier, a diamond geezer dossier, the very opposite of a dodgy dossier. A hundred interviews were collected and codified in almost a parody of an even-handed style.


At face-value the style insists on the balanced nature of its content. The balance is achieved by collecting lots of ‘evidence’ from interviews with those describing Brown’s inappropriate and dysfunctional behaviors, and from time to time cuts from a fewer number of interviews with another group of people largely lumped together as an inner-circle for whom Gordon can neither speak nor do wrong.

The credibility of these witnesses was reinforced by their lucidity, and restraint. Yes, these were mostly credible statements, honestly reported. So what can be wrong with that? Perhaps, to extend the forensic metaphor, because these were mostly the usual suspects. We could more or less anticipate what Clare Short would say. To present her as a key witness suggested that there was no more balanced view available. Claire offered the comfort of repeating, mutatis mutandis, what she has been saying since her resignation from Government, over the duplicity and ineptness of Tony Blair.

The Trap

The program had something of The Trap about it, another recent and well-crafted polemic disguised as a piece of good old fashioned investigative journalism. But Adam Curtis drew on a richer mix of post-modern devices, and had more layers of ambiguity compelling viewers to stay with it. Oborne, could be accused along with Curtis of indulging in what Guardian critic Oliver Burkeman called conceptual long-jumping.

What about Maggie?

My suspicions had been thoroughly aroused by the time the docu-rant reached an episode in which Gordon Brown was presented as being very brusque and rude at an EEC meeting. It seems that he ignored the views of others and simply repeated his position. This was presented as further evidence of his personality defects and a style which makes him unfit for office.

‘What about Maggie!’ I shouted. But due to the nature of television, Oborne ignored me. And he never made the next step in the argument. Could we take the case of Margaret Thatcher’s dysfuntional style as even more evidence that Gordon just doesn’t have what it takes to be a good political leader? Or am I engaged in a ridiculous piece of conceptual long-jumping?

Smoke and fire

Overall, a profile of Gordon Brown is emerging. He undoubtedly has displayed many of the less pleasant characteristics of powerful leaders in politics, business and sporting domains. If I understand the thesis, Australian commentator Jeff Schindler [aka Jeff Schubert] would have us believe that given more power, Gordon is likely to become more rather than less autocratic. Oborne may have a point. But it is neither new, nor particularly damaging.

I am reminded of something I overheard in a discussion between two colleagues, a few years ago. The one had arrived at the conclusion that Tony Benn was a dangerous and mad politician. He had expressed this to someone with Bennite sympathies.

‘He’s got big staring eyes’ the anti-Benn character asserted. ‘He’s mad, that politician’.
Enraged, his companion found a cutting reply:
‘You’ve got big staring eyes. You are just as mad as he is’

Or, to deploy another bar-room maxim, it takes one to tell one. Which might not be terribly balanced, but still seems somewhat relevant to Oborne’s treatment of Brown’s state of mind.


A political triumph for deadline busters in Northern Ireland

March 27, 2007

_42185224_adamspaisleynew_203.jpgTwo men are photographed seated together. The world of Northern Ireland politics applauded the fact that DUP leader Ian Paisley had consented to sit in the same room with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

I am reminded of a handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders all those years ago at Camp David. The handshake was grudging. The world applauded the fact that it had taken place. Yesterday, the body language was no more comfortable. Nick Robinson, that most urbane of political correspondents, hailed the momentous nature of the event.

My diary notes for Saturday March 24th:

Ahern: Either – Or
Hain: Find some wriggle-room
Blair: Legacy? Avoids commenting
Brown: Offers another £1 billion to NI if deadline holds.
Paisley: Don’t bully us
Adams: DUP frustrating the will of the people
Leaders we Deserve: Deadline threat is a weak ultimatum. Everyone expected delays to the last moment. Where’s the Golden Bridge? Is a deadline a good idea?

The Golden Bridge

This is leadership folk-lore. A military leader I know likes to quote Lao Tse. The great leader leaves a golden bridge over which enemies can retreat. An unneccessary battle with desperate foes will be more costly than a more merciful strategy, not just as a matter of moral imperative, but of longer-term self-interest. Annihilation of an enemy force leaves too much of a legacy, and is a weak option, not a sign of strength. That’s what I meant by ‘Where’s the golden bridge?’

The Dynamics of Deadlines

In general, in leadership studies, the dynamics of deadlines has not received the attention it deserves. In some contrast, it is a topic of great interest to decision analysts, economists, and project managers.

I had returned to the recent cultural whipping-boy, Game Theory, earlier castigated in The Trap.

Researchers into economic rationality term the key issue that of the Principal/Agent problem. This quickly gets complex enough even when working with the start-up case of a single ‘boss’ or Principal, and a single employee or agent. In his Theory of Optimal Deadlines, Flavio Toxvaerd demonstrates the complexities even when dealing with the simple case (rather than the political situation with several Principals and Agents).

To summarize, Principal Agent theory begins (as the Trap indicates) with the assumption that Agent and Principal will always act to protect their own self-interests. The theory builds in information asymmetry and the universal temptation of the Agent to avoid unpleasant actions even if this leads to ‘moral hazard’.

While agents may appear to be irrational, this may be explained in various ways. Some of the irrationalities may be minimised by the contractual introduction of incentives for aligning the wishes of Boss and agent. However, as Toxvaerd reminds us, estimates of deadlines are notoriously bad in practice. His theorizing suggests that contracts too often fail to offer sufficient incentives for the agent.

In other words?

If you impose deadlines for some action to be completed, make sure the payoffs are as far as possible aligned with the interests of the agent. Extrapolating to the political case, try to find an alignment of the interests of the major players. What non-economists call win-win outcomes. These ideas suggest that change is more likely if deadlines are consensual rather than imposed.

The story will also be remembered for the common enemy identified by Paisley and Adams. It turned out to be a threatened Water Tax, brandished by Peter Hain as a bit of legislation from the European Parliament. (Trickle-down economics indeed). And maybe, just maybe, the deadline was quite a good idea, in order to provide something to be challenged and defeated by the Northern Ireland leadership.

As of today, political progress seems to have been taking place, and been seen to have been taking place in Northern Ireland. Less than a month ago he talk was of ‘a battle a day’. Now, ‘the audacity of hope’ is a little more on the agenda.

The Trap: TV series models the leaders we deserve

March 24, 2007

the_trap_screenshot.pngThe Trap explores the impact of game theory on contemporary life. It suggests how such social beliefs and actions may be helping create the leaders we deserve.

The BBC TV series, The Trap, promises to become a cultish success. Before its first broadcast, web-surfers were alerting their networks to its importance.

Part 1 of 3, F**k You Buddy: A series of films by BAFTA-winning producer Adam Curtis that tells the story of the rise of today’s narrow idea of freedom. It will show how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today’s idea of freedom. This model was derived from ideas and techniques developed by nuclear strategists during the Cold War. It was then taken up by genetic biologists, anthropologists, radical psychiatrists and free market economists, until it became a new system of invisible control.

Lumbering along after the trend-setters, I caught up with the second episode last Sunday. Curtis offers his thesis in a way that is likely to promote discussion.

The web community offers its increasingly significant early indications of beliefs and arguments. Discussion has tended to polarise, with contrarians positive towards the programme for its revelation of the dystopian conditions in a globalizing culture.

In the UK, The Guardian offered about as thorough a critique as could be hoped for. Sometimes the blogging discussions transcend the traditional efforts of journalists, but Oliver Burkeman’s piece is a hard act to follow.

An audacious hypothesis

The trap according to Burkeman offers an audacious hypothesis whereby:

the paranoid theories hatched during the cold war would come to inspire a peculiar, cold-hearted idea of personal freedom – one that helps explain everything from the rise of Prozac and Viagra to Labour’s obsession with healthcare targets, from the military crusades of George Bush and the rise of the Iraqi insurgency to the rampant diagnosis of attention deficit disorder in children.

Burkeman captures one strong concern of some bloggers subsequently, that Curtis engages in ‘conceptual long-jumping’. He, like the bloggers, picks up on Curtis’ treatment of the beliefs of radical psychiatrists. The Trap presents R D Laing as contributing to the belief that madness is totally a socially constructed phenomenon. This may, or may not be what Curtis believes. His approach permits him to present himself as committed to a defense of individual freedom and leaving the viewers to take the debate forward.

As he tells Burkeman:

If there’s one thing that links all I do, it’s trying to make people pull back, look at their time

To which, Burkeman, who is largely sympathetic to the project, comments tartly that

The Trap occasionally feels as if it is stepping a little too far back, wrapping the whole past half-century into a single argument

The Trap and Leadership

I take Burkeman’s point, while feeling (in common with a view expressed in other blogs about the programme) that the Curtis perspectice can not be completely dismissed. Critical theorists such as Gibson Burrell and David Collins have been plugging away in a similar vein in their examination of received wisdom of leadership and organizational studies. They argue that the dominant paradigm severely distorts and diminishes the complexities of human beings engaged in working and organizing.

Judging from the comments they have provoked, the programmes have succeeded in helping (making?) people ‘pull back’, the better to reflect on wide social trends. They may also help us reflect on cherished notions of leadership.
The broad thrust of the argument is that an influential intellectual movement has, for several decades, reduced human behaviour to a kind of Hobbesian self-interested scrabble. From such a perspective, leadership is a construct of social control, cynically espoused for self-interested motives. It aligns with the theoretical perspective that all politicians are ‘only out for themselves’, and that claims to be acting out of a ‘higher’ sense of duty are efforts to manipulate.

This is in precise opposition to the humanistic psychologists such as Abe Maslow and Carl Rogers.

In an earlier blog I suggested that the ideas of Carl Rogers provided a rationale for trust-based leadership. I could have added that humanistic psychology also lies at the heart of the new leadership paradigm, and the idea of the transformational leader, elevating the moral and social sensitivities of the wider social group.

From a Hobbesian or Rogerian perspective we end up with leaders we trust. Hobbesians expect and respect one kind of ‘strong’ leader for exercising social control; Rogerians another frespected for removing impediments to moral development.

In either case, we end up with leaders we create, sustain, and deserve.