Dystopian vision: Kevin Spacey arrives at a special screening of House of Cards Series 2 in LA, February 2014. (Photo: Getty)
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The House of Cards school of political ambition is flawed

Simplistic self-interest is not just bad PR, it is often bad strategy

Is cynicism overrated? My question is strategic rather than moral. Even if your ambition is worldly success alone – with no regard for your own happiness, let alone anyone else’s – would that end be best served by mastering an exclusively self-interested approach? Leaving aside the wider issue of conscience and sleepless nights, does cynicism work in even the narrowest practical terms?

I ask the question having just finished watching the second series of House of Cards, the US television series starring Kevin Spacey as an amoral Washington politician. Frank Underwood and his wife – with very occasional exceptions – are both perfectly self-interested. Theirs is an alliance rather than a conventional marriage. Their goal is power. Their means are whatever it takes. Everything else is collateral. Their only virtue is private honesty: they do not pretend to themselves that they are pursuing anything other than advancement. And it works. The Underwoods fool no one about their motives and yet still win the political game, gradually exploiting the weaknesses of everyone who stands in their way.

It sounds silly to argue with the premise of a work of fiction, especially as the plot is too outrageous to pass as a serious reflection of political reality. At a deeper level, however, House of Cards panders to a seductively simple world-view; indeed, it glamorises it. Whereas Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing fantasised about a liberal philosopher-king in the White House and a court of idealistic intellectuals at his service, House of Cards portrays the world in the opposite light. As there is never a shortage of cynics eager to pick holes in optimistic drama, it is only fair to challenge the assumptions of the self-interested.

In the real world, nakedly ambitious people rarely achieve their ambitions. I remember one clever, cynical and precociously driven undergraduate at university being routinely referred to as “a future cabinet minister”. If he was so clever, however, why was his ambition the first thing – often the only thing – that everyone noticed? Just as it is a failure of charm to be thought of as charming, it is unworldly to be thought of as impatiently ambitious. My university peer did eventually stand for parliament but was not elected.

He would have been better served reading more Shakespeare and less Machiavelli. Taken together, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V offer a sustained exploration of differing approaches to ambition. In Shakespeare’s account, the feckless and hedonistic early life of Prince Hal (the future Henry V) was central to his eventual political triumph. Better to surprise everyone with a late conversion to discipline and ambition than to be seen as a coldly calculating strategist all along.

Hal admits, however, that a part of him was always just playing Jack the Lad:


So, when this loose behaviour I throw off,

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly, and attract

more eyes,

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

While Hal could be accused of merely higher self-interest, I’ve seen similar journeys undertaken more spontaneously. In professional sport, two of the most effective captains I encountered, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan, had both previously been fun-loving young players. Their progress was a natural journey, not a premeditated assault on high office. Each enjoyed his early career, happily anonymous in the ranks. I wouldn’t accuse either of cynically withholding his hand. Their late switch to seeking office came partly as a surprise to them as well as other people. They realised by increments, as they worked their way through the field, how far they could go and how well they might do.

My argument runs deeper than advocating elegant mock-diffidence. Simplistic self-interest is not just bad PR, it is often bad strategy. It suffers from a fatal flaw: it is predictable. It is usually easy enough to work out where someone’s self-interest lies. A constant attachment to getting ahead is a strategic limitation.

The best leaders I have encountered demonstrated a gift for surprise. They did not approach decisions as straightforward calculations; rather, you sensed the interaction of many different motives, ranging from self-protection to altruism. Crucially, I suspect that even they did not fully understand how they weighed and balanced their needs and aspirations. Their motives were opaque not only to others but even to themselves. That uncertainty about what they were thinking inspired a mixture of fear and hope.

Which brings us to an explanation, I think, of why the cynical position is so overrated. It offers, in a depressing way, a thrillingly simplistic account of humanity. Whatever the question, the answer is the same: self-interest. If we can gather all the relevant information – and discover people’s weak spots and susceptibilities – an optimal strategy will inevitably emerge. Frank Underwood will be able to tell us what to do next.

The alternative view – that human motivation is usually complicated and often unfathomable – demands a permanent acceptance of uncertainty and the possibility of hope. There is no overarching rule for getting on, because human motivation cannot be reduced to a formula.

The world portrayed as a cynical dystopia has a bracing clarity. Yet it is a narrative con, every bit as much as sentimentality is. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.