Any time we see a politician fail, or an idiotic policy collapse as it passes through parliament — which these days seems like a regular occurrence — we are left with a familiar feeling. That this screw-up is the result of a chancer at work. Someone who has, at the very best, a shallow understanding of the country they’re trying to govern. Someone who knew how to come up with a headline-grabbing idea, and how to make it sound convincing and radical — but didn’t ever have the faintest idea how to implement it.
What we see perhaps less often is that the UK has — for a variety of cultural, social, and economic reasons — set up our public life so that the chancers are best suited to the system, and are most likely to rise to the top.
This is what you might call the British bluffocracy. We have become a nation run by people whose knowledge extends a mile wide but an inch deep; who know how to grasp the generalities of any topic in minutes, and how never to bother themselves with the specifics. Who place their confidence in their ability to talk themselves out of trouble, rather than learning how to run things carefully. And who were trained in this dubious art as teenagers: often together on the same university course.
This malaise is not confined to politics, but is present in a terrifyingly wide range of our institutions. The way we educate the people who will enter public life, the way our career structures work, and the institutions themselves that we have built — from parliament to the civil service to the political press gallery — all favour the bluffers. David Cameron was teased as the ‘essay-crisis’ prime minister, a governing style that worked for him until he failed his Brexit essay. But other consequences are deeper still: the short-termism of our institutions is, in no small part, due to bluffing.