Peter Bye

Kakistocracy revisted

In September 2017, I posted a blog called The rise of the kakistocracy[1] . As I explained there, the word means government by the worst, the most stupid, ignorant and unqualified people. It wasn’t hard to find examples then, such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe, to name just two; it’s even easier today, unfortunately. In 2017, I was interested in how western governments, in particular the UK and USA, might be heading in the wrong direction. Although in no sense as bad as many, the USA following the election of Donald Trump showed worrying signs. I felt we should be holding mature democracies to much higher standards than emerging countries.

I came back to the subject in February 2019 in a piece called Governing the UK[2]. The UK was engaged in endless arguments over Brexit and was trying to agree a way out of the EU. No advanced preparation had been made ahead of the referendum in case the vote was for Brexit; the entire process was a shambles, as I tried to explain. I thought the Brexit process revealed serious flaws in the way the UK was governed although I did not think it merited being called a kakistocracy. However, much better qualified people than I thought that we were heading in that direction: Edward Luce suggested as much in a piece in the Financial Times on 7th February 2019[3].

Since then, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and won a general election in December 2019 to give the Conservative government a substantial majority (80), albeit with only 43% of the votes cast. The UK left the EU at the end of January 2020, entering a transition period during which a new EU relationship would be formed. Mr Johnson could thus claim his promise that he would ‘get Brexit done’ was delivered. In addition, he made it illegal to extend the end of the transition period beyond December 2020. Right now, it looks as if we are running out of time to get any sort of trade deal with the EU. The recent suggestions that the UK would attempt to modify the exit agreement add extra complications. The harm done by a no-deal Brexit would add to the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has upset everything, as it has for everywhere else in the world. The government’s response has been mixed, to put it mildly[4]. Its performance has been inconsistent and confusing, with frequent changes of direction and no real explanation as to why[5]. A glaring example is the fiasco of the secondary school A-level and GCSE examinations. Early in the lockdown, it was decided to cancel the exams and to move to an algorithm to compute the results, based on teachers’ predictions and schools’ past performance. The calculated results tended to favour superior schools, especially private establishments (confusingly called ‘public schools’ in the UK). Following an outcry from teachers, their pupils and parents about the results, the decision was made to switch to teacher assessment in England, immediately following a similar decision in Scotland. The resulting chaos left educational establishments with a lot of clearing up to do.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a great deal of hostile criticism of the government in general and the Prime Minister in particular. Some has come from sources which could be predicted to be critical, such as the New Statesman and The Guardian[6], others from more neutral think-tank sources such as the Institute for Government[7]. More worrying for the government has been criticism from normally loyal sources, such as The Daily Mail and The Telegraph[8]. The Daily Mail ran a front-page cartoon showing Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson as Laurel and Hardy, while a piece in The Telegraph talks about the ‘stench of incompetence’.

But the most worrying characteristic of the government is that there appears to be a reluctance to accept responsibility at a ministerial level, accompanied by a culture of shifting the blame for any problems to officials – or elsewhere, as I suspect the EU will be blamed if trade negotiations fail. The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, remained in place following the examination saga although senior education officials have resigned or been removed, along with various others since the last election. It’s hard to see what ministers would have to do to feel they ought to resign or for the Prime Minister to sack them. The same applies to special advisors, especially Dominic Cummings, a divisive figure who could be confused with the Prime Minister, and sometimes appears to be running the government. Mr Cummings broke the lockdown rules but would not resign and was backed up by the Prime Minister, in spite of backbench Conservative MP concerns. It’s amusing to note that Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, stated in the Ditchley Annual Lecture The privilege of public service[9], 27 June 2020, that ‘..politicians like me must take responsibility for the effect of their actions and the consequences of their announcements’. Clearly, the Prime Minister and others haven’t read it.

For these reasons, the UK appears to be moving in the direction of a kakistocracy. It’s not yet as bad as Donald Trump’s USA but it’s on the way. I believe that the rot goes to the top: Boris Johnson is unfit to be Prime Minister. His performance earlier as Foreign Secretary under Theresa May showed a level of incompetence that was a warning. Max Hastings, a distinguished historian and former editor of The Telegraph, had Boris Johnson as his Brussels correspondent. On 24 June 2019, Mr Hastings published a piece entitled I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be Prime Minister[10]. I believe Mr Johnson’s record in office as Prime Minister and, for that matter earlier, as Foreign Secretary, shows Mr Hastings was right.

Notes and sources

[1] See https://peterbye.blogactiv.eu/2017/09/05/the-rise-of-the-kakistocracy/

[2] See https://peterbye.blogactiv.eu/2019/02/20/governing-the-uk/

[3]Only the UK leads America in its rush to kakistocracy’: https://www.ft.com/content/7fa8b934-2a6b-11e9-88a4-c32129756dd8

[4] I commented in June 2020. See https://peterbye.blogactiv.eu/2020/06/12/how-is-the-uk-coping-with-the-pandemic/

[5] Interestingly, the one change of direction the government would not take was the offer to extend the transition period in the light of the distraction caused to everyone in coping with the pandemic.

[6] The New Statesman, 26 Aug 2020 https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/08/boris-johnson-s-biggest-problem-not-lack-competence-it-s-absence-conviction and The Guardian, 30 Aug 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/30/the-johnson-method-of-government-total-power-with-absolutely-no-responsibility

[7] Institute for Government: Tim Durrant 27 August 2020: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/prime-minister-needs-clarify-whether-he-still-believes-ministerial-accountability and Bronwen Maddox 27 August 2020: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/gavin-williamson-should-go-too

[8] Daily Telegraph 18 August 2020 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/08/18/governments-rarely-able-survive-stench-incompetence/ and Daily Mail 18 August 2020 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8638397/Clown-Gavin-Williamson-savaged-British-press-exams-farce.html

[9] The full text of the Ditchley Annual Lecture ‘The privilege of public service’, 27 June 2020 can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-privilege-of-public-service-given-as-the-ditchley-annual-lecture

[10] The piece can be found at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/24/boris-johnson-prime-minister-tory-party-britain

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