The Political Hubris of Long-Term Plans


Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

Few sights are more absurd or unreal than political leaders announcing their long-term plans for radical changes benefitting millions or their intention to reform giant institutions in a year or two. Grandiose pledges to create a better world trip off the tongue and they pretend to have a degree of control over events that they must know they do not possess.

I always liked the caustic remark of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau when told in 1918 about President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for ending the First World War and for establishing a lasting peace. “Why does he need 14 points?” asked Clemenceau derisively. “Even the Good God only had 10.”

I remembered Clemenceau’s jibe when watching Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proudly unveil his five promises to the British people this week. These are to halve inflation; to grow the economy; to reduce debt; to cut hospital waiting lists; and to stop migrants crossing the Channel.

As exasperated journalists swiftly pointed out, the first three promises cover developments already underway and there is no date by which the last two tasks are to be accomplished. To be fair, Sir Keir Starmer struck back by producing similar guff about devolving government powers from the centre and doing many other good things without spending any money.

Presumably there are voters who are impressed by this sort of grandstanding. The former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi would whip out a list of his pledges, such as a bridge between Sicily and the Italian mainland, and read them out on television.

I reported on the midterm Congressional election in 1994 when Republican Congressional candidates solemnly signed a “Contract with America”. President Clinton called it “a Contract on America” but, corny though it was, it helped the Republicans to a massive victory at the polls.

The hubris of these performances is self-evident, but perhaps they are effective because people would like to think that their leaders are in greater control than they really are. Few dare admit this publicly whatever their real thoughts and it is unwise to mock what George Bush senior called “The Vision Thing”.

Long term visions are peculiarly ludicrous in Britain today as prime ministers and ministers sweep in and out of office so speedily that the public no longer know their names. In addition, most of them have shown demonstrably low calibre in any job they have ever held. Yet these same people claim to be able to take decisions affecting a vast and complex organisation like the NHS with its 1.2 million employees.

A friend of mine who was a civil servant in the Ministry of Health in the 1990s, told me sadly this week of her despair when she tried to explain to Edwina Currie, then a junior health minister, in the back of a taxi on the way to a mental hospital how the treatment of mentally ill children might be improved. Currie listened distantly while giving her main energies to an interview with a morning radio show.

Beneath the Radar

I am fascinated by the impact of the third great revolution in archaeology over the last 10 years enabling scientists to study the migrations that produced modern Europeans. The study of human genomes from 5,000 years ago show that we have a much darker and bloodier ancestry than I had supposed.

Cockburn’s Picks

China is presented as the great threat facing us all. Most of those who say so can barely find the country on the map. I found this lecture enlightening in a straightforward way about what the Chinese state thinks about Russia, America and the war in Ukraine. It is shocking to discover that the Chinese ambassador in Washington is treated as more of a pariah than than the Soviet ambassador at the height of the Cold War. US officials and politicians compete to see who can be the most hawkish towards Beijing and escalation management is dismissed as appeasement.

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