One of the greatest gifts in life is the ability to take something complex, extract the key factors of importance, and then simplify what it’s all about. My experience of politicians (which is more profound than I would prefer) is that they really fall into two groups: those who came into politics to change things, and those who did it to preserve something.
The ones who have arrived in Westminster in the forlorn hope of changing something are not hard to spot. They have a decent sense of humour, but they’re often loners by the very maverick nature of their aims: they’re more plumbers than joiners. These people I dub The Gamechangers.
Thatcher was a Gamechanger. So too were Nye Bevan, Enoch Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Ted Heath. So as you can see, it’s a mixed bag. Not all Gamechangers are wearing the White Hats. Gamechangers today include Kate Hoey, Boris Johnson, Tom Watson, Andy Bryant, John Redwood, David Davis, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and (less powerfully) Graham Brady. Note the commonality here: none of them is in government.
Their other shared feature, however, is the ability to explain stuff in everyday language without resort to flim-flam and poppycock. But sadly, over time even Gamechangers can turncoat into the other lot – The Preservatives. Tom Watson, for example, shows every sign of doing that. So does Graham Brady. In some ways, Nigel Farage is the same.
Today, the huge weight of influence is with the Preservatives, as I have taken to calling them, as in French this word means contraceptive. The Preservatives stop things from happening – often from poor motives such as the protection of privilege – and after a few years of doing this, inevitably corruption seeps in….such that they cover up reports, threaten coppers, bully BBC journalists, or have MI6 operatives killed – to stop things happening.
They come from all corners of the House, and from under stones all over Britain. The entire purpose of some 68 Labour MPs, for example, is to ensure the continuing hegemony of the Unite Union in public and transport services. Similarly, a medium-sized coterie from the Tory Right attend Parliament purely to dissemble about, and then defend, every nefarious activity undertaken by bankers. The chicken and egg thing is difficult to unravel among the Preservatives, but suffice to say that, as naked lobbying has grown, so too have their numbers – because they instinctively feed off each other. Or suck each other off, depending on how radical you’re feeling at any given moment.
So at the outset with regard to the British political system in 2012, we can see that (a) most MPs are there to represent themselves and others like them, not us; but (b) they seem quite happy to do it while being paid by our money. The rapid end result of representing interests is that the pols soon forget all about their constituents.
Only the removal of controlling Party leaderships, the abolition of Whipping, banning all political contributions and shoving the lobbyists out of Westminster and Whitehall is ever likely to weaken this increasingly Bourbon-like clique of the self-interested. And this is why, over the last year or so, I have gradually come round to the conclusion that trying to influence the Political Class is a frustrating waste of time. We need to apply pressure to, and inconvenience, those who conspire to have their way via that Class.
So it is interesting to note that the inability – indeed, active unwillingness – to explain things in simple terms goes way beyond the political system. Sometimes the Preservatives (like ISPs) are behind it. Sometimes, it’s just sheer autistic dweeb inability to understand ordinary people. But one or two Gamechangers (like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson) have made fortunes via simplification aimed at satisfying the needs of the consumer.
Among The Preservatives here, I would cite first of all the blatant silo-management of ISPs, and their idiotic cheek in providing chat rooms and ‘forums’ in the stead of real service. The equivalent idea in the Health Service would be anaesthetists giving surgery patients two large cylinders and an array of needles, and then pointing them at an online course in opiates. It is staggering in its combination of brass neck and wilful stupidity.
Software suppliers still reside in the mediaeval practice of allowing geeks to write the manuals, all of which are impenetrable and none of which ever have pages saying ‘How to make his feature work step by step’. In the case of Paint.net illustration and photo manipulation software, or example, the explanation of ‘layering’ (a three-step process a monkey could learn in two hours with the help of a couple of bananas) begins with ‘Layers explained’. That section explains nothing beyond the onanist ego of a rafters-dewller who shouldn’t be allowed out during the daylight hours. Imagine reading your new car manual (those were the days) and finding, on page one, ‘The fundamental nature of the sparkplug in the ignition of a diesel-powered internal combustion engine’.
Software lunacy is exactly that, and I rarely feel that there is any malign intent behind it. Sociologists, however, display all the signs of being some form of Masonic Guild, where plain English has been excommunicated in favour of dense syntax, jargon and the language of pseudo-scientific investigation. Usually, the object of all this bollocks is to hide worn-out (and often disproved) theories about sexuality, criminality and anti-social behaviour from being found out. You may think this nonsense relatively harmless, but let me tell you: it absolutely underpins the pernicious Secret Family Courts system, and all the ghastly aspirations of muddled people determined to ‘engineer’ society via the practice of kidnapping.
Management Consultants similarly ply their trade, which is – in a nutshell – the sale of heavy documents followed by a contract to supply executives, who then run the process of applying the snake-oil contents of the documents at an eye-watering hourly rate. The documents contain jargobabble like ‘critical path analysis’, ‘potential leveraging’, ‘resource support’, and one of my favourites, ‘customer facing’.
At no point (until it’s far too late) does anyone say “This is all meaningless systemspeak, and there isn’t a creative idea in there anywhere”. Eventually, the Board Member who brought them in gets fired, and soon after that the company is sold to a competitor who’d kept his eyes facing the customer rather than focusing on his own navel. This tells the exact story of McKinsey, Safeway and Morrisons twelve years ago, but I’ve seen it happen dozens of times in my career. I cannot offhand name a single company whose success – or even a successful change of direction – can be put down to value added by management consultants. The late lamented John Harvey-Jones was the only consultant to management who has ever impressed me with his ability to cut the BS and ask searching questions followed by better answers. And the last thing he would’ve called himself was a management consultant.
But if such ‘advisers’ have created an entire commercial sector of no value to anyone, those in the business of investment – and especially investment banking – have lived off (indeed lived for) a form of selling which has gradually, but ever more quickly in recent months – shown that it is capable of destroying the global economy. Even more destructively surreal, the tumour they have grown is now ten times bigger than that world of commerce where real things are grown, extracted, made and refined.
In that context, you have to have heap powerful obfuscation and fathoms of small print in order to keep the illusion going. Such stuff has three aims: to scare off regulators, to convince the media that banking is both complex and essential, and to hoodwink the customer. An investment contract in any form emanating from an insurance company, retail bank, banking firm or fully-approved investment banking group requires every single customer to sit down with a dictionary and three packs of ProPlus for two days before signing it. Surprisingly, almost nobody ever does that.
But at the higher level of playing three-card tricks with Parliamentary Committees, regulators and Government Ministers, the obfuscation is entirely verbal. Here it consists of rationales, comparisons and claims so ridiculous that, after a few minutes consideration, it becomes obvious to anyone with a functioning cerebrum that they’re all lies. Wall-to-wall, one-coat-covers-all, jet-black, prime-grade mendacity. (The undisputed World Grand Master at this lark is Bob Diamond, although Mario Draghi and his ‘non-cash convertible paper bailout fund’ is catching him up fast).
They get away with it thanks to a melange of reactions including fear, boredom and – in the case of the media – intellectual idleness. And a contributing factor in that process here in Britain is an educational system geared towards learned acceptance rather than creative interrogation.
So do we come back full circle to the political set, and its enslavement by the media, bureaucrat, security service and banking systems. Although this shouldn’t evoke sympathy for most of them, MPs and Ministers are, in truth, blackmailed into generallised banality by their dependent slavery. They need the media’s support to get elected and spin away their sins, they need Sir Humphrey and GCHQ secrets about them to remain secret, and they need banking because – being financially incontinent – they need their money. (It is a tribute to the innately dull mediocrity of most politicians, by the way, that they have bailed out banking incompetence throughout the world without realising that, during that period, they have held all the cards. For a brief period in the spring and summer of 2011, it looked like Angela Merkel alone might have grasped this. But a few months of Schäuble, Draghi and Geithner on her case put paid to that.)
These groups simply add to all the other ‘interests’ on their back and, as we’ve seen so often, the citizen comes last. But a few probing voices remain in the media – Hislop, Paxman, Oborne and so forth – so to see these chaps and others off, the pols have borrowed from all The Preservatives outside Parliament to create their very own Lexicon of Avoidance.
It comes in almost as many forms as there are examples of it, but for by far the best-ever (and funniest) deconstruction of it, go to the late George Carlin’s site and bring up his speech to Washington press correspondents of 2007. In the meantime, join me now as we take a brief look at some of the more famous, and contemporary, of them:
I was quoted completely out of context
The Minister misspoke
I haven’t heard the Minister’s speech yet, but whatever she said that’s my position too
Let’s be clear about this
There will be a full and rigorous Enquiry but we do not need an independent Enquiry
I have yet to see any evidence that Jeremy Hunt abused his position as Culture Minister
We need to re-examine this legislation retrospectively
It all depends on how we define ethics, really
It’s the cuts
All these elements will be investigated by a variety of agencies in the fulness of time
Well you know, in the end history is a thing of the past
As I wrote at the outset, simplification without superficiality is a gift for which anyone who has it should be eternally grateful. But the simple motive behind complication in 2012 is that, while it is sometimes accidental, it is more usually intentional. Those who make things sound complex and difficult do it, because otherwise they would have to stop executing their scam and get a proper job.
I’ve many times seen this charge laid at Gordon Brown’s door, but for once it is unfair: Brown is simply a psychological mess, a sufferer from OCD who complicates to destruction. Talk to Treasury civil servants who worked for him, and they will tell you exactly that.
A better example today is Andrew Lansley, a Minister who has pulled off a remarkable stunt in so confusing everyone about his NHS ‘reforms’ that most commentators have missed the simple line running through the legislation: the desire to turn GPs into businessmen, and bankrupt hospitals so they can then be sold to American health insurers at a knock-down price. Some observers, however, tell me all this was entirely unintentional, and that Lansley is just another berk who never computes the consequences of his actions. Both are entirely possible – and both summate life at the top end of our political oligarchies in the UK now. Powerless to control money, technology, global business or fiscal debt, promoting a picture of complexity is, for the oligargoyles, the only preservative left.
Related: George Carlin, All-American Hero.