The bluffocracy: how Britain ended up being run by eloquent chancers, hooked on a culture of inexpertise

The bluffocracy: how Britain ended up being run by eloquent chancers, hooked on a culture of inexpertise. By James Ball.

Any time we see a politician fail, or an idiotic policy collapse as it passes through parliament — which these days seems like a regular occurrence — we are left with a familiar feeling. That this screw-up is the result of a chancer at work. Someone who has, at the very best, a shallow understanding of the country they’re trying to govern. Someone who knew how to come up with a headline-grabbing idea, and how to make it sound convincing and radical — but didn’t ever have the faintest idea how to implement it. …

The glib rise to the top, while the brightest and most competent are systematically excluded. This is not, to use the left’s favorite word, sustainable.

We have become a nation run by people whose knowledge extends a mile wide but an inch deep; who know how to grasp the generalities of any topic in minutes, and how never to bother themselves with the specifics. Who place their confidence in their ability to talk themselves out of trouble, rather than learning how to run things carefully. And who were trained in this dubious art as teenagers: often together on the same university course. …

The way we educate the people who will enter public life, the way our career structures work, and the institutions themselves that we have built — from parliament to the civil service to the political press gallery — all favour the bluffers. …

As a result, top politicians of both parties end up spinning arguments they often barely understand and certainly don’t mean. The supposed watchdogs — political journalists — are often just as bad. And the crisis of trust in mainstream politics and journalism alike does raise the question of whether the bluffers are being found out. …

Most bluffers are made, not born — and the archetypical bluffer’s degree is, of course, Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s taught at a number of universities across the UK, but is most strongly associated with Oxford. Students are marinated in an adversarial university tutorial system which favours the quick thinker over the deep rival. … Those who prosper are not those who possess the deepest knowledge, but who can deliver a clever quip or a leftfield surprise argument. …

Nick Hardwick …  once put it well. The civil servants who get on, he said, ‘are those that can write a good minute which gets a minister out of trouble’ rather than ‘those who can run things so they don’t get into trouble in the first place’.

He could have gone further. A first-class bluffer knows how and when to speak in meetings, due to having learnt this skill at private school or Oxbridge. For example: if you don’t know much in a meeting, speak early, while the relatively obvious points are still available to be made. By contrast, if you’ve got a killer detail or argument you think others lack — especially if it could prove decisive — wait until the end, so it sticks with people. This and dozens of other tricks — speaking in the intakes of breath that others leave, knowing when to drop a rhetorical question, knowing just how much research to do — are used to get attention.

The final pillar of the bluffocracy is the media, which is supposed to hold the other two institutions to account. Some of the UK’s most talented journalists work in parliament, but they are — by design — generalists, being asked to report about defence issues one day, and train takeovers the next. This system serves to insulate ministers from questions by subject-matter experts.

I’m pretty certain that’s true throughout the West. The increasing idiocy on display in public affairs is a new phenomenon of the last few decades.

They say people are conservatives in areas they are expert in. Perhaps the simultaneous advent of bluffers, postmodernism and the left’s dominance of public life has something to do with the left’s long march to capture all of the institutions.

hat-tip Stephen Neil