Begone, financial vampires

AL Kennedy is on the move. Pondering the romantic potential of Stockholm Syndrome, she takes time ou

It was bound to happen – the final twangy bit holding my mental compartments together (or, indeed, apart) was eventually bound to go ping and leave me. I think that happened in Blackpool. Not sure. I have, since we last spoke, been flinging myself into the joys of a writer’s autumn: festivals, festivals and then some touring and more festivals. So Wigtown was followed by Blackpool, by London, by Stockholm, by Cheltenham and by I no longer even care where I am now: wherever it is has food and a bed - I therefore like it. And most evenings I will be up on my hooves doing comedy, or reading, or inconversationing, or perhaps all three. Of course, there is other work to do during the moderately endless hours of travelling. These hours being extended vastly by my plane phobia. For example, I went to Stockholm by train. Or rather, eleven trains and two ferries – my, how I laughed, cried, hallucinated, collected spare change in multiple currencies and drank too much coffee – well, who needs to sleep ? There are things to do.

The things would currently involve rewriting a book of short stories to prevent its shades of misery from being so utterly repetitive that it causes people to die simply from holding it while still in the bookshop. (At this point my publisher would want me to insert some kind of disclaimer to point out that it’s actually a lovely volume full of kittens and sunshine, but you’re hardly going to swallow that, are you? It’s by me.) So my hands are covered in red ink and my loathing for every word is increasing exponentially. I also, for at least two very pressing reasons, have a film I need to hit with a hammer until it works – plus, autumn is the time when writers have to release damp-eyed, gangle-legged young projects into the maze of razor blades and paperwork which is the BBC offers round… off they go, often to fall into the first water hazard, sometimes to trot blithely on towards the next levels of risk, torment and origami. I am sustaining myself with a new CD of music from the Tower Ballroom’s Mighty Wurlitzer – genuinely, the first unremittingly jaunty sound you’ll hear as the demons haul you under to your just deserts

Still, I do quite like the travel – Wigtown had lobsters and cake, Blackpool was Blackpooly and allowed me to learn from various palmists that I am married, divorced, due to have twins and going out with a man who has one bad knee and the letter t, l, a, d, m, n, or c in his name. So that was reassuring. And Stockholm was a treat – always wanted to go there in case they had any Syndrome left. Given my busy schedule and cosmetic disadvantages Stockholm Syndrome represents one of the few ways I would realistically get a gentleman (with or without working knees) to commit himself fully to being fond of me. Four or five weeks in my fundungeon and I feel almost anyone would be able to convert their fear, pain and outrage into sincere and lasting affection.

No. Actually, after more than a month of hostage maintenance – the first aid, the dry cleaning, dealing with the whining and the blood – I don’t know if I wouldn’t be terminally jaded about the whole business. So that’s another option gone.

One benefit of my journeying has been that it keeps me from brooding about the sixteen grand I’ve apparently given to a wunch of bankers for shagging my economy by balancing it on funny money and a house price bubble. I would just mention that their plodding brand of duplicitous charlatanism was exactly what we were told would bring new life to the NHS, our schools, our public transport… Can we just stop pretending we believe that shit now? If we want to know about health care could we, for example, just ask doctors and nurses, maybe focus on keeping people alive in the most convenient and pleasant ways possible? Maybe we could chuck money at the systems which will help us survive when everything topples into the pit we have dug for ourselves and are currently still dancing round pretending that consumer debt and singing lalalalala will sort everything out? And, dear God, could no one else tell me that controlling the actions and bonuses of these weasels would drive them to other countries and that this would be a bad thing. That’s like suggesting the prosecution of burglars should be suspended in case it causes them to use their housebreaking skills on Johnny Foreigner. If our financial vampires want to go and knacker someone else’s banks – let them try. I’d even conjure up a poem to commemorate their departure – I’m busy, but I’d make the time for that.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt