Day by day, from one blunder to the next, goings-on in Westminster are increasingly coming to resemble a pantomine production - and a third-rate one at that, complete with ridiculous villians, a decaying backdrop, and a notable lack of any heros or heroines. But worst of all, one in which none of the cast seem to remember their lines and directions. They all look like they’re “winging it”.
This is exactly what James Ball and Andrew Greenway hit upon in their new book, Bluffocracy, an upcoming addition to Biteback’s polemical Provocations series. They argue that the British political class - the government, media and civil service - is overrun with bluffers. By ‘men - it’s usually men - whose core skills are talking fast, writing well and endeavouring to imbue the purest wind with substance.’ So that we are, in effect, governed by a ‘bluffocracy’.
The authors lay the blame for the bluffocracy on the education system, and on ‘the ultimate course for a bluffer in waiting’ in particular: Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. Since its conception approximately a century ago the course has been the golden ticket for those who aspire to one day walk the corridors of power. Exemplified by the fact that the course boasts several Prime Ministers, several hundred Cabinet ministers, legions of journalists, and even a few Presidents among its alumni.
The authors - two PPE graduates, guilty as charged - argue that the course is ‘the perfect preparation for bluffers in public life’. Structured in such a way that it rewards those who can master a task (on the surface at least) in a matter of days or even hours. ‘It is the degree where one is presented as knowing everything, and it provides a bluffer with the tools to give that impression. Beneath the surface, it teaches you exactly how to do enough, in just enough time, to make sure the mask doesn’t easily slip off.’
This tendency for bluffing is exported over to those sectors and institutions which the majority of it’s graduates gravitate toward - namely, the government, civil service and media. ‘For a country that remains incredibly snobbish about vocational education versus going to university, there is an irony that PPE, perhaps its most notorious degree, is actually the ultimate vocational course.’Irony aside, given the high amount of its graduates that do enter public life, the stucture of the course exerts a profound influence on the composition and operation of this country’s governing and media institutions.
It is because of this that ‘we live in a country where George Osborne can become a newspaper editor despite having no experience in journalism, squeezing it in alongside five other jobs… [and] where the minister who holds his job for eighteen months has more expertise than the supposedly permanent senior civil servants’.
On first hearing, this supposed bluffocracy doesnt appear to be the most of pressing concerns, what with Brexit, HS2, the housing crisis, and not to mention the coming revolution in AI. Besides, the notion that those of who inhabit the upper eschelons of power are bluffers - knowing a little bit about everything, and an awful lot about nothing - is hardly a novel one. Ever since Castiglione and the Renaissance the “jack of all trades, master of none” ethos has been well documented, even encouraged.
But the authors are adament that the our prevailing bluffocracy is in many ways more serious and insidious a problem than may first appear. ‘Hardwired blagging is woven into the cause of many challenges we’re facing, shaping the short-termism and lack of detail that plagues our national institutions, and contributing to the crisis of trust in British political life.’
And it is here that they are really onto something. Confidence in the competence and motives of our political class is at an all time low - and that really is saying something. Nowhere was this made more evident than on 23rd June 2016, when the electorate (albeit narrowly) rejected the edicts of the pro-EU establishment. “Project Fear” as it has become known, really was a bluff-too-far for many.
For those that did vote leave, they did so in the hope that their lives would improve; so that politicians closer to home would pay closer attention to their grievances, and address them effectively. But if our governing and media institutions continue to be run by bluffers, it is likely that these hopes will be met with disappointment. There is, after all, little point in ceding the rule of 100,000 Brussels Bureaucrats only to be left with 100,000 Balliol Bluffoons in the driving seat.
Indeed, if our bluffocracy continues unabated and unchanged - and if the events since June 2016 are anything to go by, this seems more likely than not - then leaving the EU is likely to make the electorate even more disillusioned with the competance of our political class. For exporting blame over the English Channel will no longer be an option, and Britain’s bluffers will be centre stage, warts and all, for all to see.
If this does transpire, then, like the paying audience of a shoddy pantomine, the electorate - leavers and remainers - will be tempted to storm out and demand their money back, risking the end of this production for good. What to be replaced by, nobody knows.
Polemical by name, and certainly polemical by nature, Bluffocracy is a forceful, erudite, and insightful edition to Biteback’s already groundbreaking series; and essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the bluffoonery underlying the issues of governance in contemporary Britain.
Published: 16 AUGUST 2018