Reviewed: After Saddam by Radio 4

Water water everywhere.

After Saddam
Radio 4

A programme about the pitiful state of modern Basra ten years after the US-lead occupation of Iraq found fridges stacked up in shops, useless thanks to repeated electrical cuts. The drone of petrol generators filled the air, a deafening accompaniment to the 50-degree heat. The presenter, Hugh Sykes, had no trouble digging up horror stories. A bridge very recently built is already crumbling. “Even engineering has gone backwards,” someone wailed, cursing local corruption. Interviewees openly wept. This was a stunningly depressing vision.

But then he reunited with Hamid and Matrud, two farmers Sykes had already met a decade earlier growing cucumbers in the remains of the enormous marshlands 40 miles north-west of Basra, an area believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. Much of it was drained into a desert by Saddam in the 1990s as a punishment to the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. Although satellite photographs show that some marshland has recovered – there are patches of vivid green replacing the dead brown of Saddam’s deliberate desert – the water that has come back is salty because so many dams have been constructed upstream, mostly in Turkey, and there isn’t enough flow of fresh water from the Tigris and Euphrates to flush the natural salt from the marshes. No more cucumbers, no nothing. “Never again, here, the cathedral halls which were constructed with reeds celebrated by Wilfred Thesiger . . .” remarked Sykes, with such an intense wistfulness most of the words were made on one memorable extended out breath.

Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (1964) is more famous though less accomplished than Gavin Maxwell’s 1957 A Reed Shaken by the Wind (Maxwell obtained his first otter in these very marshes: a cub called Chahala, “the size of a kitten with a delightful malty smell”). Maxwell was Thesiger’s travelling companion but is not mentioned once by Thesiger in his account. Thesiger lamented for the rest of his life the suburbanisation of this untamed, 3,000-square-kilometre watery place. And here was Sykes doing precisely the same, using the same language, 50 years later. That’s an unusually long extended out breath –but it seems a place unwilling, despite all efforts, to capitulate fully to any destructive force.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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