The consequences of bad behaviour

Waiting for comeuppance

In chapter five (page 127 to be exact) of The Levelling I wrote about the apparently growing tendency for some politicians to be self-centered and incompetent, and drew a contrasting portrait of Boris Johnson MP and the late Peter Carrington. It went as follows…

‘A further contrast in political types might help illustrate this point further. In July 2018 Boris Johnson resigned as British foreign secretary. Britain no longer has an empire, but the office of foreign secretary is still respected. During his tenure, however, Johnson made a number of gaffes and was generally seen to have damaged rather than advanced Britain’s interests. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, he was also seen as a natural leader of the Tory Party, but the way he has conducted himself since then has led many party colleagues to the view that, even by the standards of politicians, he is too self-serving, and he has lost support within his party.

The day after Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, the death of Lord Carrington (at the age of ninety-nine) was announced. Carrington had been British foreign secretary from 1979 to 1982. He was generally recognized as an exemplar of integrity in public life. Early in his political life, he had served in Winston Churchill’s cabinet of the early 1950s; later he was defense secretary for Edward Heath and then foreign secretary to Margaret Thatcher. To cut a long and good story (of his life) short, he resigned as foreign secretary three days after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on the grounds that the invasion happened on his watch and was therefore his fault.

As political resignations go, this one was seen to be selfless and principled and stands in contrast to the tactical maneuvering of some politicians today. Carrington, along with many contemporary central bankers (Paul Volcker, Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and Mario Draghi, for instance), is a good example of sincere public service and his behavior stands in contrast to that of successors like Boris Johnson.

The distinction I wish to draw is to have policy makers who are more responsible for and focused on policy making than on their own personal advancement. Advancing oneself is, of course, prevalent across all organizations and institutions, but the difference with politics is that people’s lives are affected by bad policy making’.

At the time, I did not think Boris Johnson would become Prime Minister, though there was a good chance that this might happen. Further, given everything that has happened with Brexit so far, it was still hard to imagine that in a few weeks his government has managed to effectively destroy the Tory Party, the Union and the very large stock of goodwill that Britain has built up with neighbouring countries like Ireland.

I believe that the Tory Party will soon formally split, and that the nucleus of a new centrist party in British politics will be formed around the twenty one MP’s who were expelled from the Conservatives.

Another consequence is that the barriers to Scottish independence are falling. Most of the arguments deployed by Brexiteers for ‘taking back control’ appear logical in the case of Scottish independence. Everything the Johnson government does shears away at the moral and emotional ties between London and Scotland. Moreover, the departure of Ruth Davidson as head of the Scottish tory Party will hand back a number of seats to the SNP. The challenge for Nicola Sturgeon now is to convince Scots that the SNP can execute new policy ideas that will make Scotland more stable economically, and richer in terms of human development.

Then, both the Irish government and the EC will feel that their opposite numbers in London have no credibility and no sincerity. Whereas they were often puzzled by Theresa May, Boris Johnson has done nothing to encourage Brussels to trust him. That is a pity because once Britain leaves the EU, the truly complex business of negotiating its future relationship with the EU will only begin. This is apparently lost on the Johnson government.

To return to the distinction I drew between Johnson and Carrington, there is an emerging theme in public life that the consequences of bad behavior are in many cases low. There are many instances, Jeffrey Epstein is the latest, where individuals have engaged in enabled, persistent abuse. Politics is sadly becoming similar. The world stage is increasingly replete with examples, with little distinction between leaders in emerging or developed countries.

In time, very bad, divisive behavior in politics hits its limits and is sanctioned. What is disappointing is that those limits are being stretched to breaking point.  At times, markets can sanction bad policy by politicians, but bad personal behavior is seemingly harder to check. Infuriatingly, social media seems to amplify and reward bad behavior in politics.

A more profound policy issue is that the lack of real economic growth, and the poor distribution of its benefits (in countries like the US) means that voters will look beyond reckless policy in search of economic rewards. In the US specifically, few on the right are prepared to stand up to the President. They might do well to look at the example set by the likes of Ken Clarke, Jo Johnson and Rory Stewart last week. Boris Johnson himself might do well to look at the example set by Peter Carrington.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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