SATURDAY ESSAY: Why those in charge never want to simplify

Obfuskating for Black Hats, Lesson One

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 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.





49 thoughts on “SATURDAY ESSAY: Why those in charge never want to simplify

  1. “Note the commonality here: none of them is in government.”

    Has there bee a reshuffle ? Is Michael Gove no longer Educational Secretary ?


  2. Nigel Farage isn’t a game-changer – he’s an intelligent and articulate critic of European integration and, in some ways, an engaging personality. However, as a party leader he’s a disaster. The main problem is his obsession with the Conservative Party, which he regards rather as Archbishop Lefebvre did the Roman Catholic Church. Farage sees UKIP as a single-issue pressure group which exists to exert leverage on the Conservative Party in relation to European policy, and thereby bring it back to the True Path. He runs UKIP (to the extent that anybody can be said to) through cronies, stifles any attempt at policy development which might risk turning it into a real political party, persecutes people who demonstrate any independence or originality of mind, and – through having appropriated the only viable non-Conservative “brand” on the respectable Right – has effectively queered the pitch of everybody who might have done things differently. The Conservative Party is a hopeless case – a Ship of Fools on a voyage to perdition. The Right needs to reorganise around a new vehicle, but poor Nigel lacks the imagination to see it.


  3. ‘The fundamental nature of the sparkplug in the ignition of a diesel-powered internal combustion engine’ is to be a complete waste of time, as a diesel engine does not have a sparkplug.

    I’ll just put my anorak back on…….


  4. “Knock, knock!
    Who’s there, in the other devil’s name?
    Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.
    O, come in, equivocator.”

    – Macbeth


  5. @JW: “Let’s be clear about this”

    Hey … I use that phrase occasionally ;-) Yet I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to see through the bluster & blather that we are confronted with nowadays to expose the essential simplicity of issues.


  6. How I wish we could have a UK Ron Paul!

    I think it is highly unlikely he will win, but I suspect he has brought a passion for transparancy to the young Americans that will live on much longer than his political career.

    We can see how the old guard of print and broadcast media are being shunned by his supporters. This will snowball,every time they see blatant lies in the press they tell one more person who starts questioning the validity of the source and doubts set in, and so it snowballs. The question is when do we reach critical mass?

    The Internet is the game changer here, it is currently far from under the control of the pols, and it is allowing people to peel away the massaged pre-chewed party lines. I truly hope all these ACTA/PIPA/SOPA/CISPA fail to put an end to this.


  7. Re: Lexicon of Avoidance. Surely these are missing: ‘we have learned lessons/we must learn lessons/we will learn lessons.’ If I hear it just once again I may well fill in the ugly facial hole from whence in came


  8. @kfc: That’s very interesting. When the EU Council President role was first created under the fake EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty , I always believed it was the job Blair wanted because the intention was for it to be a more senior role than the EU Commission President and with more powers and perks … a presidential plane “EU 1” …and all that.
    That’s why Barroso resents Rompuy: he saw it as downgrading of his role.

    Sadly for Tony Baloney, he didn’t get the job and has probably suffered many bouts of feeling sorry for himself. This new revelation will give him a second bite at the cherry and given the mess the EU is in, he may well get more undemocratic votes this time round.


  9. Oh, I really do hope it a Caine Mutiny, I love the way that Bogart nervously juggles his balls when he get anxious. ;-)


  10. @Richard A: Thanks for your insightful comments. Your description of Farage is exactly consistent with what I’ve read and heard elsewhere about him and I have to say, I tend to believe it, although I’ve never met him. And your comments about the Tories are exactly right too. They are on the road to slow-burn extinction unless they re-group and find some solid beliefs which are attractive to the electorate. Perhaps they should support the idea of having a proper written Constitution & Bill of Rights to limit State powers. Bringing Daniel Hannan into the UK Party at a high level (Chancellor?) would also help.


  11. You’ve forgotten ‘We must build bridges’.
    I read yesterday in the Failygraph that 68% of people entitled to vote did not. Apparently they have just decided to turn a sullen back on the politicos, not through apathy, but through disgust. This was described by the journalist as ‘The Silent Rebellion’.


  12. Interesting, TB. Only recently, I was wondering if my long-stolen copy of Catch-22 would assist in understanding the situation.

    One thinks of Milo Minderbinder in the present context.


  13. @BT: I too believe that it could be why his name cropped up the other day in respect of his return to mainstream politic.
    I would be surprised if it’s not a done deal.
    It will make for some very interesting conundrums for the present incumbents.


  14. This is so brilliantly observed and eloquently described. As is always the case when dealing with brilliance; after reading it, we lesser mortals can see that all you say is Bleeding Obvious, but it takes a special kind of intelligence to unfailingly notice and encapsulate , what constitutes the bigger picture. I am absolutely in agreement with your view of the massively frustrating world in which we live. Why don’t people like you go into politics and put the others straight?


  15. @Mo: I always thought Paddy Pantsdown’s comments on this summed it up nicely when he said that poor turnouts are described as “apathy” whereas in fact it’s “antipathy”.

    apathy = it’s our fault.
    antipathy = it’s their fault.


  16. @small voice: As a general rule, you cannot change politics in any significant way from the inside. History teaches us that all major change is achieved by popular uprisings – aka revolution. It doesn’t matter what country you look at: turkeys never vote for Christmas!

    Eg: despite the many changes that Thatcher made in Britain, she did nothing to change or improve the system of government that we suffer. Tha would have been too difficult, even for her.


  17. Impenetrable manuals written by Geeks probably explains the success of the ” For Dummies ” books, John Harvey – Jones probably could have written a great general one for improving business enterprises. I would never have figured out layers & all the other applications on photoshop without one of these books, as for fractional reserve banking, it took me sometime to understand how securities, leverage, derivatives, shorting etc work. A dummies book would have been handy to cut away the invented language & other crap which seem to be designed to make it appear that it is all above ordinary mortals & that bankers are men of genius & worthy of their millions.

    Another thank you to John & others for helping this particular dummy to see through the bollocks.

    As for politicians, who to me have proven that they are much of a muchness wherever they practise their confidence tricks, ” We are all in this together ” is the phrase that strikes me as the one that should earn the title as the biggest load of bollocks.


  18. Lansley doesn’t need to “turn GPs into businessmen” – they already are. Many folk think GPs are NHS employees but, in fact, they are almost all ‘partners’ in a commercial enterprise, the objective of which is to maximise the profits of the enterprise in order that there is a greater amount of cash to distribute amongst the ‘partners’ at year-end – that’s how partnerships work.

    For some reason, they all seem to try to keep this facet of NHS ‘privatisation’ a secret, all the more surprising because it’s been like that since Day 1 in 1948. Everyone ‘loves’ their GP but complains about NHS privatisation – it’s been a well-spun mis-message for more than 60 years.

    So it’s one area where even Lightweight Lansley can’t fail, because it’s already working that way.


  19. Damn, Mudplugger…

    You beat me to it, probably due to our time difference.

    Yes, John, the diesel engine doesn’t have spark plugs. It runs on compression. Glow plugs are used to heat the diesel fuel in the cylinders to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit to allow it to explode due to compression. Once the engine is at least 160 F it will start without the glow plugs. Gas cars, on the other hand, need the constant spark of spark plugs to ignite the gas in the cylinder to make the engine go ’round.
    Best you stick to metaphors closer to your personal experience as a glitch like this causes grammatical, spelling and fact Obsessives like myself to lose sight of the point of your article.

    As you were, sir.

    My best,

    Cedric Ward
    My blog:


  20. Preservatives ‘bully BBC journalists’. Don’t agree with that John. They’re part of the Preservatives themselves. Preserve the licence fee at all costs.
    They have too much to lose if they don’t. As for the BBC being an impartial
    news organisation, that stopped years ago. They’re just a part of the whole big con that has been foisted on us.


  21. To Stevie and JW…

    I buy many computer devices from BUY.COM. Most seem to be made by small Chinese firms. Far too many of those firms INSIST upon allowing some Chinese person who thinks he knows how to speak English to write the instructions for their products.

    I just bought a tiny spy camera that came with a small sheet of instructions in type so small I had to use a magnifying glass to see it only to discover it was entirely gibberish.

    I would give you an example of what it said, but I can’t hold my magnifying glass and type at the same time. NO WAIT…

    I can’t resist sharing this

    Here is just ONE sentence in the in (de) structions:

    “It can connects computer under power off mode. after that which can be used as U disk, who can copy, cut and paste, delete file.

    Red indicator lights always brights yellow light will be brights from flashed quickly to always brights.” (sic)


    I guess I would have better luck if I could read Chinese as the other side of the instruction sheet is all in Chinese symbols. But that could just be a take out menu.

    Cedric Ward
    My blog:


  22. We need more preservatives not less. Ass Evelyn Waugh remarked, “the trouble with the Conservative Party is they have never put the clock back by one second.”


  23. I can recommend a book called “whoops” which explains the background to the 2008 shenanigans, and even a financial illiterate like me came out understanding derivatives,CDS etc. Well a bit. It’s also slightly funny in places.


  24. The Skating Minister , who could you mean? I appreciate all the effort and creativity you put in .


  25. JW,

    My particular ‘bete noire’ is the requirement for every highly remunerated UK executive to be just be able to say, with a straight face, ‘lessons will be learnt’ when a b/obvious event has taken place.

    Surely if organisations want executives that need to learn the basics of their operation they can save oodles of cash by employing a youngster at the job centre.

    Executives/directors should surely be paid for their industry knowledge and experience so that they can anticipate the iceburgs.

    Too many appear to be chosen solely because they are ‘team players’ whatever that means.

    It appears to me that many of the upper reaches of management have succeeded by never actually making a decision (often called a ‘safe pair of hands’, normally because they are playing pocket billiards).

    PS see also ‘send in the clowns’ blog that I only noticed prior to sending this rant,but after typing typing it.


  26. Pingback: SATURDAY ESSAY: A world terrified by impotent ghosts from the past | A diary of deception and distortion

  27. Pingback: A world terrified by impotent ghosts from the past | Doomstead Diner

  28. Pingback: Milton Friedman at 100…. | A diary of deception and distortion

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