“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


Issue No 26 Friday 06 March 2009





This week


·        Celebrity And Timeserving Are Today’s Measures Of Success. But What Happened To Merit And Achievement?




What is happening now of interest to Civic Republicanism




·        Celebrity And Timeserving Are Today’s Measures Of Success. But What Happened To Merit And Achievement?



Civic Republicanism has always had at its centre one simple question – how do we cultivate virtue in our society? The civic republican answer is that we do this through properly designed institutions. Such institutions make up the civil society on the one hand and the government on the other.


But let’s be clear. Virtue here does not mean saintliness and deliberate self-sacrifice even though those qualities may themselves be virtuous. The concept of civic virtue refers to being a good citizen, playing a part by doing your job well, however humble or lofty it may be, having a due regard for the interests of others and being free of corruption. Only in extreme circumstances may sacrifice be called for.


Those who hold to Civic Republicanism are naturally going to be concerned about the direction that our society and political culture is taking at the present time. It is impossible to not recognise that virtue is taking more and more of a back seat. That is a general observation but this newsletter will concentrate here on just one small aspect - how people are seen as fit to do a particular job.


We seem to be entering a world where proven competence is not considered of importance in selecting an individual to do a job. The only thing that matters is their profile. This may be public profile to the degree that they have celebrity or it may be professional profile in the sense they have gained experience for the job and this regardless of whether that experience suggests competence or incompetence.


Take a recent example. Ex Prime Minister Tony Blair has created a company to be called Tony Blair Associates. This will provide "strategic advice on political and economic trends and governmental reform”. (It is thought to be the first time that a former British prime minister has launched a money-spinning venture based entirely around their experience at the helm of government.)


The notion that Mr Blair is some kind of expert on “political and economic trends”, of course, is laughable. This is the man whose government has landed us in the worst economic mess since … well, we are still arguing about what follows the “since”, but it is continually being stretched out. As for “political trends” it is true that twelve years ago he played a part in reforming the Labour Party to defeat a Conservative Party that was down on its knees But following that victory, whatever political acumen, he may have had, rapidly disserted him. The decision to lie to parliament in order to justify joining President Bush in an illegal invasion of Iraq is hardly one of someone who is well tuned into the historic shifts happening around them.


As for “government reform”, this is an area that Blair believes he has contributed in no small measure. Few would agree with him. The British state is now much more or a bureaucratically top-heavy, form-filling, inspection-obsessed, experience-lacking, quango-directed, badly-managed beast than the one he inherited in 1997. As one piece of evidence we see that, in spite of increasing general unemployment, many vital services are having recruitment difficulties. Teaching, policing and social services are examples recently in the news where the burden of administration created under Prime Minister Blair is making recruitment difficult and retention a nightmare.


The point here is that the blatant unsuitability of Blair to perform the job description of “Tony Blair Associates” is not considered an issue. Blair will find clients just because of his experience and celebrity. Whether or not he proved himself in his previous roles is unimportant.


Since he retired as Prime Minister, Tony Blair has already profited from this strange tendency to ignore the record of previous performance and judgment. He currently has an official role as an international peace envoy in the Middle East. Again this should be laughable if it were not so serious. A more unsuitable candidate for this job could hardly be imagined if we looked to his history of policy making in the Middle East.


The Daily Telegraph reported recently that he “takes a £2.5million salary as a part-time adviser to the American investment bank JP Morgan Chase and £2million for an advisory role with the Swiss firm Zurich Financial Services”. The conflict of interests in having ex-politicians working for banks is too obvious to spell out, but the point here again is: what on earth do these institutions hope to gain from hearing Mr Blair’s thoughts on the economy?


The Telegraph also says that he is also reported to command six-figure sums on the after-dinner lecture circuit. A Spanish newspaper reported last year that he earned up to £240,000 for making a 90-minute speech to 2,000 entrepreneurs in Barcelona. For those of us who have been force fed Blair’s pearls of wisdom for many years the idea of now paying significant sums for the privilege seems unreal. Who could believe he could say anything that would help these people run their businesses?


To this list has to be added the £4.5 million advance for his Downing Street memoirs he has already received. How on earth do the publishers hope to get their money back? The man is a proven liar. What would be the point of reading his account of anything? It will only be a self-serving post-justification to try to redress his tattered reputation and poisonous legacy.


Whilst Tony Blair is at least now has no hand on the political levers of power his former colleague and rival, Prime Minister Brown, certainly does. No one was more implicated in the creation of the economic tragedy now unfolding than Brown, but people justify his retention of power on the grounds of experience. Yes, that’s right; he has experience in running the economy. But what does the record tell us? It tells us that the man has no economic competence. And yet somehow his “experience” counts in his favour.


And this attitude incredibly extends to those other participants in creating the economic mess - the banks. Once again the principle of having just done something is more important than whether you did it well. Failure is no barrier to success. Those who are responsible for bringing their banking businesses to their knees somehow keep their jobs. The justification? We need their experience. Goddamn it! We need their experience like a hole in the head. The actions of some of these individuals verges on the criminal. But there they are, still in the driving seat due their “experience”.


The tendency to disregard a person’s record of competence and look only to their celebrity or timeserving on a job may possibly be something that has moved over from the less momentous, but similar, happenings in the world of leisure and entertainment.


If you go into any Waterstone’s you will be greeted by celebrity books stacked up at the entrance. The value of these works as readable entertainment or interest is not the point. They are pushed just because of the fame of the author or the celebrity of the subject.


In sport too people become celebrities overnight on the narrowest of talents. Just because they can jump higher than anyone else, or hit a ball over a net better than most, they achieve fame and fortune. Well, at least, they have done something well, but let us not imagine that they have any special kind of virtue or wisdom because of it.


The same process is happening in TV programmes where we are seeing the expulsion of genuine experts in favour of celebrities to present histories and documentaries. A recent sad example of this regrettable drift was a travel programme on Russia presented by Jonathan Dimbleby. He clearly had no special knowledge of the country, did not speak its language and completely lacked charisma to boot. Why could we not have had someone who knew the country do the job and make the programmes more interesting and less facile? And the actor, Tony Robinson, is wheeled out to present almost anything - archaeology, law, you-name-it.


This preference for non-experts to present programmes is no doubt an attempt to have someone to represent the viewers’ reaction to the subject, unmediated by someone who actually knows what they are talking about. The biggest extension of this technique currently is in the use of comedians (or rather ex-comedians who have long forgotten how to be funny) as presenters. Michael Palin with his patronising travel programmes was the ominous forerunner of this and the list of those clamoring to join in is growing all the time. Griff Rhys Jones has had a chance to demonstrate his ignorance of old buildings, Paul Merton has done the same thing for China, and even David Walliams and Matt Lucas have tried to settle in front of the cameras, as comfortable guides to whatever it was, well before their professional maturity as comics had arrived.


The power of celebrity is no more evident in that strange and uniquely British phenomenon, the “celebrity chef”. Does anyone seriously sit there in front of the TV taking notes so that they can try the dish out later? Watching these people for an hour long programme is clearly a popular pastime. But the programmes are doing nothing to help the population to eat better as it is visibly becoming more unhealthy and obese. No one seems to be learning a thing.


People used to say that youth was given too much prominence in our society but this can no longer be easily argued. Nowadays simply having a name gets you in to all sorts of powerful and lucrative positions. It does not matter whether you are young or old.


The old dictum “all publicity is good publicity” is truer than ever before. Just somehow get into a high profile job. Don’t worry about screwing up. Just get known.


This is not a recipe for a mature, fair and prosperous society. The Civic Republican view must be that this is happening because our institutions and businesses, whatever their merits, are showing their weaknesses.


If it is possible to generalize, the problem probably lies in one simple fact about the society we are creating – there is too much emphasis on superficial appeal. In depth expert, knowledgeable assessment is considered stuffy and “undemocratic”.


We need to encourage our institutions to value merit, qualification and proven experience above celebrity and timeserving. They will do this, given the right sort of independence and the right sort of environment.


And if any business really think there is anything useful that Tony Blair Associates can tell them, then it needs to ask some hard questions about its management.



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……. …….until next week