Dystopian vision: Kevin Spacey arrives at a special screening of House of Cards Series 2 in LA, February 2014. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

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

Paul McMillan
Show Hide image

"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496