Western People 18.10.2022
It was, I think, Taoiseach Seán Lemass (1959-66), who popularised the practice of juggling ministerial appointments to ensure that competence or training wasn’t aligned with departmental responsibility.
So, the theory went, farmers shouldn’t be appointed to agriculture or teachers to education. If a politician had the required level of intelligence the expectation was that he or she should be able to read themselves quickly into whatever brief was allotted to them. A fresh perspective from an intelligent politician would, it was further argued, deliver a more imaginative response.
Or so it went. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes, as we know, a credible theory can go spectacularly wrong.
Take the recent case in the UK of Kwasi Kwarteng, apparently a man of formidable intellectual credentials, who was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in the new government by the new PM, Liz Truss.
Because an English public-school education – particularly in expensive independent boarding schools like Eton – so easily impresses public opinion in the UK, the Lemass theory is often applied. Thus, Kwasi found himself in the hottest of hot seats.
It seemed an inspired choice, particularly as Kwasi was a friend of the PM and apparently bought into her belief that she was the new Margaret Thatcher. He also shared her opinion that enhancing the income of the richest of the rich while ignoring the plight of the poorest of the poor would transform the UK economy and all of its constituent parts. It would mean, as is often argued, that a rising tide of prosperity would raise all boats. Or in Truss’ own words, that ‘Growth! Growth! Growth!’ would follow.
But doubts were raised when it emerged that Kwasi’s doctoral thesis was, according to the London Times, on the English coinage crisis of 1695-97. And to top it all, even Kwasi’s ability to write poetry in Latin – an affectation that is about as obvious as it is useless – also seemed unhelpful in terms of the basics of economics.
Something very strange is going on in the UK political establishment. The erratic behaviour of the British state over recent years has became a permanent condition rather than a temporary flirt with novelty and nonsense.
It seemed to start with Brexit, now gradually exposing the emerging damage perpetrated on the already declining economy of the UK, as it struggles to come to terms, psychologically and practically, with an empire transforming itself into an ever-declining state in awe of its pretensions.
Making the point, if anyone in the UK is listening, is the recent statistic that the poorest people in Ireland now have a standard of living 63 per cent higher than their counterparts in Britain. Similarly, a companion statistic – that the full state pension in the UK is the equivalent of €209 while in the Republic of Ireland it’s €253 – was ignored.
Making the point too is the incredible statistic that the UK has gone through four prime ministers in about five years. The hapless Theresa May was left to carry the can after David Cameron resigned in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Her efforts to ‘get Brexit over the line’ were systematically undermined by Conservative MPs, in thrall to the prospects of one Boris Johnson who had presented himself as a knight in white armour who would lead the party into the next election and secure both Brexit and the vulnerable Tory seats.
Despite lying his way out of multiple self-inflicted crises and through an embarrassing series of cock-ups where he displayed not the expected agility of an anointed PM but the almost complete absence of any moral compass, Boris had to be forcibly retired to the side-lines of British politics, only when it became clear he would make the next election even more unwinnable by the Torys.
The great white hope of British conservative politics turned out to be a chancer and a fumbler who couldn’t manage to get out a full sentence and who couldn’t be relied upon to tell the truth. He had become a national embarrassment but was only ejected when he was unmasked as an electoral liability.
Another Latin enthusiast, having done his stint in Eton, Boris delighted in dropping classical references into his rambling press conferences that sent the media searching out fellow-traveller, Jacob Rees-Mogg, yet another Latin aficionado, who seemed to live not just on a different planet but in the nineteenth century.
Then, Liz Truss arrived as yet another PM, from the same demented table as her predecessor. Clearly out of her depth she quickly found herself ‘in office but not in power’ as her first decision (with her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng) prompted the Bank of England to intervene and Tory MPs to demand a change of course.
Shrewd observers of the political scene were soon writing her obituary: ‘doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation’; ‘her removal is not a matter of if but when’; and different forms of ‘she should resign and withdraw’ and, memorably, ‘bonkers’.
As I write Truss has announced that she is embarking on ‘a charm offensive’ to convert Tory MPs to her cause and telling everyone that after her first slip-up she now ‘gets it’. I’m not sure even her most rabid supporters and hangers-on believe her.
The mayhem in the UK should make us appreciate the quality of political leadership here at home.