Reviewing Tony Blair

July 7, 2016

Tony Blair returns to centre stage. His conduct over the war in Iraq is coldly and unequivocally criticised by Sir John Chilcot as he summarised his long-awaited review earlier this week

Some years ago I carried out a careful review of Tony Blair’s autobiography A Journey:

 I am beginning to see how TB presents himself as having unshakeable self-belief. It’s through a process which psychologists call cognitive dissonance. One colleague of mine would say he might have ‘a touch of the coggers’.

Human beings generally can deny the existence of unpleasant evidence which challenges self-esteem. Their reflective processes are curtailed, and this state of denial is a psychic protection mechanism. The example which suggested this possibility is the account [p 88 on] of TB’s decision to send his children the a ‘good’ school rather than a neighbourhood school. These sorts of decisions are seen as presenting dilemmas for socialists in the public eye. During his account of this, Tony Blair suggests that opposition to these views by traditional labour supporters as coming from beliefs (which, he adds in parentheses, might be called prejudices).

The book seeks to present the subject in the light he wishes to be seen in. Don’t we all?  Here felt his remorseless insistence being seen as someone in complete control to be of paramount importance.

Writing on the Anniversary of the World Trade Fair bombing, I wondered whether he had the same feelings of dislocation and disorientation that were widely shared by others:

To a degree [chapter 12], but his account is clumsily written for someone with his instinct for the impact of his words. He does briefly convey his emotions, but in preamble, he sets the context with his visit at the time to a highly forgettable visit to a Trades Union Conference which is described with misplaced assumption that readers share the author’s enthusiasm for what Tony did next. [‘The great thing about Brighton is that it is warm…’, followed by a brief paragraph in which I counted 11 uses of the first person singular pronoun.]

How did he feel on first learning of the attack? ‘I felt eerily calm despite being naturally horrified…Within a short space of time I ordered my thoughts ….it was for a battle for and about ideas ….it came with total clarity, and stays still.. as clear now as it was then.’

The chapter quickly turned into a justification for war in Afghanistan as a moral and strategic imperative. His speeches at the time convey what now seems to be an unshakeable belief in the rightness of his judgement.  Later in the review I commented more on Tony Blair’s attitude to reality:


After a close reading of the book, I concluded that Tony Blair does not believe that he is a liar in the way many believe to be the case.  He has a intuitive way of reaching conclusions, and finds it easy to back-rationalise from them.  In this respect he is in denial over contrary beliefs.  Having decided that Bill Clinton is a particularly ‘good guy’, he justifies the Monica Lewinski affair in a remarkable bit of special pleading which amounts to his observation that Bill was deeply interested in and curious about people. That might be compared with Clinton’s own piece of denial to the effect that he “never had sex with that woman”.

One explanation is that Blair and Clinton have beliefs that are filtered through a special way of seeing the world which some would say is misguided at times. Some would detect evidence of narcissism, and which in Blair’s case verges on megalomania.

Bertrand Russell observed that megalomania is found in lunatics and among many of those who achieve greatness. Alexander the great is often cited in this respect. There may be actual achievements but the mental condition becomes delusional.

My conclusions after reading the book carefully were as follows:

[1] Tony Blair believes himself one of the leaders of the world’s progressives

[2] He “gets it” on big issues: World Peace, The Broken Society, The Economy, The Future of the Labour Party, Leadership, Islamic fundamentalism

[3] He is deluded in his view that his training as a barrister has gifted him a keen analytical way of analysing of complex events. His arguments often are loosely constructed to arrive at the conclusion he wants to advocate

[4] The boundless self-confidence conceals deeper insecurities and a need to be loved and seen as someone very special in the eyes of the world

[5] The book suggests that Tony Blair’s Messianic beliefs have not entirely gone away.

Meanwhile, as the book was published, the inquiry launched by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and headed by Sir John Chilcot, was into the second year of its deliberations. It was to be a further six years before it reached the public.

The Three Iron Laws of Political Coups: From Ed Miliband to Sepp Blatter and Rupert Murdoch

June 12, 2015

TriangleJournalist Steve Richards examines how political leaders are overthrown. Is he offering suggestions relevant to other kinds of leader such as Sepp Blatter or Rupert Murdoch?

Steve Richards writing in The Independent states that there are ‘iron laws that apply if a party wants to dislodge a leader’. While I would prefer the term working principles, the three ‘laws’ he propounds make a great deal of sense.

He argues that for a successful coup:

 1 There has to be at least one popular alternative candidate

2 the risks are considerably lower than those for retaining the incumbent leader

3 The coup must not generate bloody internal battles.

Read the rest of this entry »

Leadership Lessons from the General Election

May 8, 2010

The General Election of May 2010 produces one of the most expected and feared results, no overall majority. What leadership lessons can be drawn from the campaign and the outcome?

If you are interested in something like the General Election, it’s worth trying to figure out what might happen. The process gives you a chance to check your assumptions. Scientists talk about hypothesizing. That may be a bit grand, but the principle is of putting your ideas into a testable form.

Let’s start with the most unexpected episode of the campaign. For me it was the claimed shift in voting intentions produced by the very first televised leadership debate. Several zillion tons of volcanic ash prevented me watching the programme, although I’ve caught snatches of it since. The event appears to have triggered a substantial electoral shift towards the Liberal democrats through the performance of Nick Clegg. The Government seemed to be facing near wipe-out in the election.

Then, as election day approached, polls reported that up to 40% of those questioned reorted that although they intended to votethey were ‘uncertain’ which way. By then, support for Clegg’s party drifted out to a position that was still higher than expected at the start of the campaign. Labour was still in for one hell of a whacking. Part of me ‘bought’ the idea of nearly half the electorate turning up on polling day still unsure where to put their cross on the ballot paper. Another part of me wondered if the uncertainty was a weakening of confidence in previous tribal certainties. (Incidentally, the 40% figure must have been good news for party activists urging weary troops into one more battle).

What would happen?

Coffee-shop punditry persuaded me towards the view (not really a hypothesis) that the Clegg swing was swinging back a bit in the last week of polling. Conservatives and Cameron to take power by a smidgeon, or maybe there would be a hung parliament. Clegg to be a very powerful player. The electorate would not defy all previous behaviours at the polls. Lesson: you can get carried way with the most recent data and forget history may still offer useful notions of what might happen.

The day after the election

If there had been a Clegg swing, it had come and gone. The Lib Dems had even been marginal losers in seats at Westminster when Parliament reconvenes. Those inexorable laws of large numbers were still in place. They showed that the bizarre one-eyed campaigns of newspaper magnates had not succeeded in talking up Cameron or talking down Brown to any obvious extent. The rise of the right-wing parties did not take place, and even with disenchanted Labour and Conservative votes arguably did worse than the Green party, whose sparkling candidate and party leader, Caroline Lucas won at Brighton. There were regional and local hotspots. Scotland remained a near Tory-free zone. Wales began to feel that a vote for labour was not something inherited along with father’s Union card.

What happens next?

Time for a bit more (not-quite) hypothesising. A few days in which there are opportunities for leaders to make a difference. Although the overall votes for the Liberal Democrats were down, Nick Clegg and his team find themselves much in demand as coalition partners. If they say no to David, then Gordon has publically offered them something that would keep the Government in power.

Clegg has to decide what might be worked out with the Conservatives, to balance off a still-twitchy electorate without missing a change for advancing a cherished cause such as electoral reform. Plaid Cymru had a less-nuanced idea and quickly offered support to the Conservatives for an additional chunk of financial support coming the Wales. David Cameron has to find an arrangement which the king-making Liberal democrats will at least go along with temporarily. My chess-playing instincts suggest this is a time to play some waiting moves, holding the position, and not pushing too hard. That’s one of the skills which become honed in the heat of battle. Less experienced players over-commit. But that’s what I would suggest as a good strategy. What will happen next? All three parties are presenting their most responsible, non-partisan side in their public utterances. The next actions will be wrapped up as being all in the national interest and will produce a new administration which has to confront economic realities with highly unpopular actions.

What’s the difference between Gordon Brown and Colin Montgomerie?

April 10, 2010

What’s the difference between Gordon Brown and Colin Montgomerie? Answer: Gordon Brown has less time left to work on his performance anxiety

The question struck me as the phony war ended, and start of the official election campaign was announced. Television clips showed a relaxed David Cameron, and a not quite so relaxed Gordon Brown. For some reason my thoughts wandered and paused on a comparison between the Prime Minister and his fellow Scot, Colin Montgmerie.

Colin, like Gordon, is not at his best when a microphone is nearby. This has become apparent since his appointment as Captain of the European Ryder Cup team. When asked even an innocuous question, his face distorts as evidence of some inner turmoil. Then there is rush of comment with only glimpses of the intelligence of the speaker. Over-rehearsed, rather than under-rehearsed.

Gordon’s performances can also appear over-rehearsed. He has been trained to smile at the cameras. Unfortunately, the smile is never totally convincing. I realize that there may be medical explanation due to his well-reported facial injuries sustained as a student. Unfortunately, the game of public presentation does not permit concessions on that count. Gordon on camera, like Colin, appears to suffer from performance anxiety.

And as any life-coach will have been telling both Gordon and Colin, they should approach interviews remembering their achievements. Each is a proven winner in his field. Ah yes, whispers Colin’s inner voice, you might be a multiple European Tour champion but you never won an Open championship. Ah yes, whisper’s Gordon’s inner voice, you might be Prime Minister, but you were never elected to the position.

At present the inner voices seem to be the more powerful. Can nothing be done to diminish these effects? There is plenty of advice available, and will be offered by various experts on political, sporting, or just everyday psychology. Much of it boils down to the Dale Carnegie School of building inner confidence, with a few flourishes about visualization.

Colin (more than Gordon, perhaps) knows that performance can be grooved, and supported by an expert coach (on the golf course, at least). At present the inner voices seem to be the more powerful. Only he will know whether the inner voice got in the way of him executing a vital putt and depriving him of an Open victory. Only Gordon will know if inside he is feeling confident enough, and it is no longer a battle with inner demons.

And Gordon faces severe trials in the weeks ahead against David Cameron, who appears to have no such inner demons.

Brown and The Sun: How We Get ‘The Leaders We Deserve’

November 10, 2009

Gordon Brown [wikipedia]

Over the last two days we have had an illustration of how leaders rise and fall by public opinion mediated through powerful pressure groups. The upshot is a process which may be studied to understand how we get ‘the leaders we deserve’

Gordon Brown has been increasingly seen as a leader who has failed to win the approval of the electorate. Within six months the electorate will exercise its democratic right and probably vote for a new government with a different leader. In that sense the voters will appoint the leader they deserve. It might be argued that a private limited company also acquires the leader it deserves through a whole series of decisions by which shares are acquired. At a stretch, the argument could even be extended to hostile takeovers.

Returning to Mr Brown, the current critical incident concerns the death of a serviceman, Guardsman Janes, and a letter written to his mother Jacqui by The Prime Minister. In a short period of time the feelings of the mother were revealed as being amplified by what she regarded as a scribbled and disrespectful note which misspelled her surname. The story (unsurprisingly) became public. The media have enough interest and resources to monitor stories of grieving relatives of military casualties. Mr Brown is cast as a leader going through the motions of sharing a mother’s grief.

Act two: Press interest persists and it becomes public knowledge that Mr Brown is to have a conversation with Mrs Janes.

Act three: the call takes place and is recorded on a Blackberry by a neighbour. The recording finds its way in a rapid timeframe to The Sun newspaper which turns it into a front page exclusive. The interview reveals the hurt of a bereaved mother who also went on to comment on wide issues of political mismanagement of the war. I just heard a snippet which sounded both heart-tugging and at the same time written down and read out.

Not far behind the headlines

Not far behind the headlines can be found the recent stories of Gordon Brown and The Sun newspaper. The declaration by the Sun that the paper was withdrawing its support for Labour at the next election was timed for maximum impact during the Labour Party Conference. That was a month ago. This story has its own ghastly timing after the death of Guardsman Janes.

Leaders We Deserve

Act four: The story gains momentum. An unpopular leader has added to the grief of a mother of a fallen soldier. The Sun has played its rightful role in bringing the story into public view. That’s what happens in a democratic open society. In so doing, the public has extra information regarding the bungling way in which Gordon Brown deals with matters of public concern. But my own suspicion is that The Sun has achieved a short-term win with publicity and sales of the paper. But I also rather think that it will not lead to enough voters switching away from Gordon Brown and his party in six months time. It may even help blunt any future attacks made in the Newspaper against the Government.

Reactions from BBC phone in callers were largely sympathetic both to Mrs Janes and to Gordon Brown, and unsympathetic to The Sun. One thought that occurred to me was how we may also be ensuring that in future the leaders we deserve will rely more on carefully-crafted printed notes under such circumstances. Which would not seem to be a good thing at all.

On deposing a leader

June 10, 2009

Nicolae Ceausescu

A whole industry has sprung up around leadership selection. But what do we know about the equally important business of getting rid of leaders?

Leaders in all walks of life face one unpleasant fact. At some stage in their career they are likely to face a challenge to their leadership, and the prospect of being deposed.

Resigning and being pushed?

In Shakespearean drama, the leadership struggle was a matter of life or death. Today the succession struggle is rarely as bloody as that. Tyrants may still rest uneasily but many escape the fate of a Ceausescu, although some business leaders as well as political ones chose to fall on their swords etaphorically.

Getting rid of Gordon

The current political drama in the UK has turned into attempts to oust Prime Minister Brown. His battle for survival seems to have been going on since shortly after his appointment as Prime Minister. This itself occurred after another coup which first damaged and then forced the resignation of Tony Blair, his predecessor.

Early in their careers, Blair and Brown were contemporaries, considered two rising stars of the labour movement. Brown was considered the more intellectually able, but Blair was believed to be more politically adept. Friendship turned into rivalry. Both subscribed to a belief that the labour party needed radical reform to turn the party into a credible alternative to a conservative party that had emerged more or less intact from one of the most notorious of political leadership coups which had deposed Margaret Thatcher.

Brown’s prospects were based on his intellectual abilities; Blair on a sharp political instinct and a charismatic impact on colleagues and public alike. As a matter of note, Brown was, in his student days, a dynamic and charismatic figure. Hard to believe now. He has developed a persona of ponderous gravitas. In the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of his favourite words was prudence.

His eventual advancement is widely believed to have involved a deal brokered by one Peter Mandelson, a figure that was to move influentially in and out of the story thereafter.

Brown had at first considered the more likely candidate as leader, but Mandelson seems to have moved from supporting his friend Gordon Brown to Blair. Brown is believed to have seen this as a betrayal of friendship and trust.

Fast-forward in time

Blair, Mandelson and Brown all advance their careers in different but equally tumultuous ways. Mandelson overcame several damaging setbacks through a colourful personal life which made him too vulnerable to aspire to the leadership of his party. Blair became leader. Brown believed he was leader in waiting, a position which attracted support particularly from the sections of the party which had found the New Labour reforms (even if politically expedient) alien to deeply-held values embodied in the old Labour movement.

In a decade of playing leader, in waiting, Brown became increasingly suspicious that his accession was no longer guaranteed, or even backed by Blair. Former allies had reached the conclusion that whatever had been agreed earlier, Brown lacked necessary skills required to take the party forward after Blair went. In very crude terms, these tended to be ‘people skills’ which had became more obvious well before his fiscal policies as Chancellor became vulnerable to attack.

Tony Blair’s popularity declined irreversibly through foreign policy setbacks particularly through the deeply unpopular Iraq conflict and his close alliance with America’s President Bush. The New Labour project (of which Gordon Brown was a founding intellectual figure) lost momentum. Efforts were made to force Blair to stand down.

The whole messy business eventually forced Blair out, and Brown was still powerful enough to claim the accession uncontested. Later, his position as a non-elected leader was to weaken him.

Gordon survives a coup

Fast forward. That seven days known as a long time in politics may be timed as the first week on June 2009. Reporting of the accelerating events filled the newspapers and electronic media. LWD summarised the developing events which had led commentators to predict that Gordon Brown was finished.

How did he survive his longest week in politics?

There may have been figures willing to take his place. The king-makers seem to have been pushing for the popular Alan Johnson. But the would-be leaders were not prepared to make the ultimate risky move that would reveal their willingness to assist in removing the incumbent. There was no Michael Heseltine around with the courage and ambition to step from the shadows.

Brown’s support was buttressed by one Peter (now Lord) Mandelson.

Is he going to survive, then?

“Is he going to survive, then? ” my hairdresser asked , last Saturday afternoon. “It’s going to be a close shave” I muttered. “He’s got to persuade his MPs next week. But a lot of people are saying he’s finished”. I could have added that the dire results from Thursday’s elections might be making it far too risky for many MPs to support a move that would probably force an unwanted election when political instincts still leave Labour supporters hoping for at least some recovery in the economic climate before facing a disgruntled and distressed electorate.

AS it turned out, the meeting with MPs went as well as Gordon Brown might have hoped. BBC’s Nick Robinson, as so often, offered a coherent analysis:

No Prime Minister who appears to be taking his party to electoral annihilation can ever truly be considered safe. Nevertheless, Gordon Brown is safe – for now. He has seen off all the plausible plots to unseat him.
Today not enough Labour MPs were willing to sign up to a demand that would have forced a leadership election. So, instead his critics sought to shame him into resigning by saying to his face in front of their colleagues that he was leading his party to certain destruction. Privately many fear that that is true but they fear more the consequences of a divisive contest now and a general election which would, they think, have to follow soon after
In reality, the threat to Gordon Brown’s leadership began & ended on Thursday night. The shock resignation of James Purnell was meant to inspire others to follow. It was meant to lead to either his friend David Milliband or to Alan Johnson becoming leader.
It was meant to make the debate about whether to back or sack Gordon Brown unavoidable. In that sense it succeeded. Hence the curiosity that as Labour nurses its wounds from the worst election results in decades the party today decided to back the leader who took them to defeat.

Exclusivity in a linked-in world. Making sense of fast-changing news stories

June 7, 2009
zzstructure modelling

zzstructure modelling

News stories are increasingly fast-breaking. Traditional ideas of journalistic exclusivity are being challenged by processes in which the news is co-created

It has become a truism to assert that information technology is transforming journalistic processes of news collection and distribution. The current political crisis in the UK makes a good example to explore these ideas.

The traditional scoop still exists

Part of the current political narrative in the UK has a traditional air to it. The Daily Telegraph acquired an exclusive story which became labelled the MPs expenses scandal. It was able to reveal the often outrageous expenses claimed by every Member of Parliament, pacing release of information.

The competitive edge has been maintained over a period of weeks. Other papers and news media were restricted to stories building on the fresh revelations day by day as The Telegraph eeked out its precious competitive resource.

Exclusivity in a linked-in world

But exclusivity in a news story is becoming transformed through the new linked-in world of the internet. Professional news-gathers are in uneasy competition with the amateurs who can also gain recognition and transient fame for being in the right place at the right time. This means being in a place when something dangerous and spectacular happens, and being equipped to capture the story and pass it on.

Remember the spectacular image of Flight 1549 ditching into the Hudson which was transmitted around the world recently? The observer had captured video footage on his mobile phone, and then on to his blog which became a global source of the breaking news.

Journalists are becoming increasingly twitchy that such stories are part of a significant change in journalistic practice. A decline is predicted in the costly business of news collection by ’real’ reporters reporting on the spot as a story breaks.

The broader political picture

But for all its competitive edge, the Telegraph could not retain exclusivity because the story broadened out into a wider range of themes outside its control. The expenses story became enfolded in the wider problems facing the Government. The global financial crisis continued to produce damaging local consequences for millions of people, threatening jobs and pensions.

In less than a week, there has been a succession of stories some connected with the expenses story, some less so. Rumours developed of a plot to force the Prime Minister to resign. Plotters appeared to be leaking information to the Westminster press corps, but not in a way in which any news medium journalists could claim exclusivity except for minor elements of the emerging story.

This took play against a backdrop of local and Euro-elections correctly anticipated by just about everyone who commented as likely to turn out very badly for the Government. To add to the information overload, there were several resignations of government figures.

One Labour MP, who also has a voice as a political commentator, was utterly convinced it was a coordinated plot and expressed the conspiracy theorist view that the events demonstrated evidence of a coordinated plot to overthrow the Prime Minister.

As the weekend approached, the events ebbed and flowed in favour of the Prime Minister holding on. In what appeared as an act of desperation, Gordon Brown initiated a cabinet reshuffle (which was also to precipitate at least one resignation).

At a remarkable Press Conference, Gordon Brown faced an audience of journalists which seemed mostly convinced that the Prime Minister was fabricating a story which was within their grasp to expose.

Could this be a modern version of that Robert Nixon moment when the most powerful politician in the world was brought low by the diligence of journalists?

Gordon Brown wriggled uncomfortably, but despite their increasingly aggressive questioning, the journalists failed to land a fatal blow.

A new approach to news stories

Whew! Stop all the clocks, as a poet put it. Information collection and dissemination has become easier and more rapid. But there is also the evident condition of increasing uncertainty surrounding any story. What’s going on? What’s going on now? New ways of dealing with such uncertainties might not just be desirable but necessary.

I have recently been introduced to new ways of dealing with complex systems. My informant was Alex Hough, a regular contributor to LWD. Alex is experimenting with a host of creative ploys to explore new ways of data management, building architectures which break away from the linearity of old-style narratives. He introduced me to concept of zig-zag data-base construction .

Alex, as well as Zig Zaggers, seem to be pointing towards a world in which news is co-created by groups or communities creating (or maybe co-creating) stories.

ZigZag holds a new, liberated form of data and shows it in wild new ways. Conventional data structures …are created from a rigid top-down specification. ZigZag structures are created from individual relations, bottom-up, and can be irregular and unlimited. Our logo says it all: locally rational, globally paradoxical, yet somehow comprehensible.

Towards that zig-zag way of managing news

In the past, the journalistic edge was based on two different and hard-to-imitate factors. The first was a temporal edge of news producers over news generators. That is being eroded when any news conference can be received globally and through many different media. The second is based on the particular skills of news management.

But even this competitive advantage is being eroded. What if the viewers can work things out in alternative ways which include skills of dealing within those ZigZag structures which are created (I would say co-created) ‘from individual relations, bottom-up, irregular and unlimited’.

Or to use another metaphor, news may be better seen as processes of map making, map testing and map reading. In the past, the journalists read the maps provided by the politicians, tested them, and presented their own versions of the maps.

The journalists still have a vital role to play in trying to reveal hidden stories. But the process of making sense of the stories is more open to outsiders who can weigh up the efforts of politicians and journalists alike, and take part in the mews making consensus. In the zig-zag world, the map reading, map testing, and map making are increasingly collaborative ventures.


To Alex Hough for drawing my attention to Zig Zag data structuring . To the

Obama seeks peace, Labour party seeks assisted suicide

June 5, 2009


As President Obama seeks to kick-start the Middle East peace process, Gordon Brown’s labour administration seems intent on committing political suicide

I will reserve comment until later on Barack Obama’s efforts on the world stage. Politicians in the UK have a far more important preoccupation, namely self preservation. The instinct mingles with a mood of self-destruction.

Battle for survival

The battle for political survival is reaching a peak in a week of resignations and political plotting against his leadership. Cabinet members and back-bench MPs had no longer any doubt that their political days are numbered unless something drastic happens. They hope for miraculous rescue through a change of leadership and a revival of voter confidence among voters.

Gordon Brown’s reaction is to plan a much trailled and imminent reshuffle of his administation.

A particularly unfortunate combination of events have contributed to the current outbreak of desperate political actions. Polls have continued to head south for the Government to near unprecedented lows. The public obsession over MP expenses in the UK blots out stories even of celebrity reality shows. This applies to the BBC Newsnight programme. Incidentally, that late night show is not normally noted for innovation, but now it has announced plans [June 4th] to present a new format for modelled on the more popular, but equally confrontational Dragons Den format. Maybe the mood of desperate searching for rescue has infected the decisions of the Newsnight programmers.

The crisis intensifies for the Government

The crisis intensifies as first local election results confirm the Government’s gloomy expectations. There was a certain black humour in an early teletext announcement overnight [June 5th 2009]

The early counts were dominated by Conservative wins, but as the night wore on …

there was no solace for Labour. [I.e. the results continued to be dominated by conservative wins].

The resignations

The resignations of cabinet ministers continued, as commentators assessed the nature of the actions. Hopeless individuals wanting out of an intolerable political situation, or a synchronized plot?

James Purnell’s shock resignation [Work and Pensions] on Thursday night follows news that Jacqui Smith [Home Secretary and Hazel Blears [Communities minister] are quitting. The Lib Dems said it was clear the government was in “total meltdown”.
Mr Purnell’s resignation letter – printed in Friday’s newspapers – calls on Mr Brown to “stand aside” to give Labour “a fighting chance of winning”.

Meanwhile in another part of the world

Meanwhile, President Obama has been as outward looking as the British politicians have been introspective. [So why place it to the end of this blog post? Partly because this a story unfolding over a far longer time period. The political frenzy in UK politics is only worth reporting quickly as events crop up with increasing velocity.]

President Barack Obama has said the “cycle of suspicion and discord” between the United States and the Muslim world must end.
In a keynote speech [at Cairo University] Mr Obama called for a “new beginning” in ties. He admitted there had been “years of distrust” and said both sides needed to make a “sustained effort… to respect one another and seek common ground”.

He received a standing ovation at the end of his speech. White House officials had said the speech was intended to start a process to “re-energise the dialogue with the Muslim world”.

Obama is fast becoming the signature figure of a charismatic leader. But his impact while emotionally engaging is also accompanied by intellectually powerfully developed arguments. The combination will be needed throughout his Presidency and beyond.

Dilemmas of leadership: The Blears Brown case

May 4, 2009
Hazel Blears

Hazel Blears

Leadership is sometimes described as managing irresolvable dilemmas. The Blears Brown episode is a case in point

Update: The expenses scandal

The original post [May 4th 2009] identified a possible problem for Gordon Brown. It indicated that actions by one of his ministers could present Gordon Brown with a dilemma.

The issue later became part of a wider series of leadership problems for the Prime Minister around what became known as the expenses scandal of Members of Parliament, revealed by The Daily Telegraph.

Hazel Blears continued to figure in the expenses scandal. She stood accused of financial irregularities. Within weeks she was forced into publicly announcing she was paying back some of the incorrectly claimed expenses. She was also to resign her ministerial position at a time and in a matter which which seemed to be deliberately damaging to The Prime Minister. The famous image at the time was Hazel Blears wearing a ‘rocking the boat’ badge as she announced her intentions to resign.

The simple issue of dealing with Hazel Blears became part of a wider issue of a leader having to deal with a more orchestrated attempt to replace him (or her). In that respect you can think of the specific issue as having far wider implications.

Original post follows …

This week continued to bring troubles in battalions to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. A range of incidents seem to be accelerating his political downfall. In Westminster his attempts to deal decisively with a looming scandal over MPs expenses were defeated with opposition aided by defectors from his own ranks. His attempt to reach out to the people, Obama style, through U-tube came across as clumsy, his smile somewhere to the downside of President Nixon’s election-losing image many years ago.

Then when he might have attracted some positive headlines for being in charge, as the authorities appeared to have coped pretty well in managing and communicating the Swine Flu story, a flurry of criticism from cabinet colleagues [May 2nd-3rd 2009]. The BBC picks up the story

It is difficult to describe the government’s communications efforts as a “lamentable failure”, then persuade people you did not mean to criticise the prime minister. That was the position the Communities Secretary Hazel Blears found herself in after news of her Sunday newspaper article broke. Just days earlier Gordon Brown had faced down critics of his YouTube videos and insisted he would use the site again. So when Hazel Blears said “YouTube if you want to”, but traditional methods were best, she both coined a catchy phrase and risked publicly contradicting her boss.

The question now is how will Mr Brown respond? Sacking her in a future reshuffle could look petty. Allowing her to stay could look weak.

Dilemmas of leadership

A nice example of the dilemmas of leadership: Mr Brown can sack Hazel Blears, or not sack her. If she were to be sacked, Gordon Brown would look petty, not sacking her could look weak. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

Surely that can’t be right?

I leave it to Leaders We Deserve subscribers to find a way through this dilemma. It even feels like a story which would make a nice examination question for a formal leadership course. [Hint: Either-or thinking is a barrier to creativity. It signals a simplified version of real-world events. Escaping from either-or thinking may be helped by a leap of imagination or a knight’s move through which the dilemma is reframed. Are there ways that GB can act which disciplines HB without being seen to be petty? Are there ways which turns a threat into an opportunity? ] Perhaps you should send the best of your ideas to the Government via U-tube.

To go more deeply

Knight’s move thinking was described in the context of strategic problem-solving in Creativity and Problem Solving at Work. The process was attributed to Manchester Business School post-graduate Dr Peter Eliott . Either-or thinking can be challenged by reframing as in what ways might we…? .

Brown’s Budget Week Anti-sleaze Shock

April 22, 2009
John Pienaar

John Pienaar

On the eve of the budget, Prime Minister Gordon Brown grabs headlines with an announcement about MP expenses. BBC’s John Pienaar suggests how such a leadership decision might be analysed

Budget day [April 22nd 2009] but there is another story dear to the hearts of MPs preoccupying our parliamentary representatives. Yesterday, Prime Minister Brown did something quite unexpected, both in message and medium chosen to communicate it. In a U-tube video he announced that he intends to move swiftly against the deeply unpopular system of MPs expenses. Unpopular that is for the public at large, but seriously popular for the majority of MPs benefitting from current arrangements.

The shock was partly because Brown had appeared to be ducking the issue of acting swiftly over the contentious issue, aided by an on-going investigation by Sir Christopher Kelly.

All the signs were that public outrage over bankers was now transferring to public outrage over MPs expenses, threatening career-damaging results for the Government. Opposition MPs, unlikely to be found completely unsullied through such revelations, are likely to suffer from what might be called friendly fire in the battle.

Maybe the shock was partly also because of a simplistic stereotype of Gordon Brown as a vacillating leader unable to act decisively or imaginatively. It is easy to make the case as a mood of national frustration with events is sweeping all before it. This week, one paper labelled Gordon the worse Prime Minister of all time.

The stereotype has been useful shorthand in countless attacks on the Prime Minister in the media and from political opponents in Westminster. My point here is not to defend Brown as to point out the possibility that there is some contrary evidence in past behaviours. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown revelled in startling budget day stories which at very least kept opponents on the back foot at the time. One of his first actions as a new Chancellor was to relinquish control over the Bank of England (retrospectively challenged, but at very least imaginative and decisive.

Why did Gordon act so decisively?

BBC’s John Pienaar spotted the point. Commenting on the newly released U-tube he observed that such decisions operated at several different levels, so it was hard to arrive at a simple explanation of specific whys and wherefores.

In other words, it’s too simplistic to assume Gordon acted to appease public opinion, or out of moral indignation, or because he didn’t want Alistair Darling to grab the headlines or because he wanted to find news that would play better than likely reaction to the budget. As academics like to say, it was a decision made under conditions of considerable uncertainty. Unfortunately, the academic acceptance of ambiguities does not fit comfortably in a culture impatient for answers This is contrary to the ‘Yes or no, it’s a simple question’ approach of Jeremy Paxman in his Newsnight interrogations).

Can’t we do better than that?

I geenrally find more in Pienaar’s thoughtful approach than in Paxman’s petulance. I also assume share Pienaar’s view that political decisions are made after consideration of a large number of salient features. That’s a hypothesis based on an assumption that political leaders plus advisors operate under complicated and uncertain conditions, in which the important questions are not amenable to yes/no, right/wrong resolution. Unfortunately, Pienaar’s point remains unsatisfactory to the extent that it offers little on how a leader might be advised to take major decisions.

Might we be able to assess whether Gordon Brown was acting effectively and decisively, or ineptly and impulsively? Or am I also falling into either/or thinking? Can’t we do better than just accepting the ambiguities around strategic decision-making?


Put another way, what sense might we make of the decision by Gordon Brown to act how he did, when he did? The decision reversed a more measured approach to the issue of MP expenses, (the on-going investigation) and one which he himself appeared to approve of until the announcement?

Thumbing through my leadership notes, I find useful suggestions. Under conditions of extreme pressure, a leader is more prone to resort to favoured strategies which may override rational considerations. Information is filtered to conceal some of the complexities of the situation. Bob Woodward’s accounts of the Bush regime contains repeated illustrations of denial and doubtful decisions.

Overall, this decision also seems consistent with another favourite principle I have written about. In an earlier post, I looked at a Gordon Brown decision when he was Chancellor. He grabbed the headlines with support for England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup.

At the time I compared the decision to The Tarrasch principle in chess.

[The Tarrasch principle] suggests that strategically you should act because you want to, or because you have to, but not simply because you have the option. Mr Brown acted because he wanted to, perhaps also because he judged it was better now than waiting for a more favourable time, and in that sense because he had to, or miss a promising opportunity. In other words, it was not just because it was an available option open to him.

Which doesn’t tell us precisely what informed the Prime Minister’s decision, but it might make sense of it, and serve as a guide to leaders facing tough decisions.