We need a fox to see the snares and a lion to scare the wolves


Some kind readers occasionally suggest that I should be prime minister. I disagree. I recoil from the prospect of breakfast with presidents Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy, or feigning patience with cabinet colleagues. I am bad at giving bland answers to unwelcome or stupid questions, or listening to the repetitive bleatings of lobbyists. I am not a natural mediator; preferring to sharpen issues rather than to elide them. I find it difficult to deliver inspirational messages, especially when I have nothing to say.

I suppose that if the Queen were to ask me to form an administration I should feel obliged to say yes, but only after an extended effort to persuade her she had made a mistake. I empathise with Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, but I do not envy them.

In politics, as in other professions, the people best at it have learned the trade. The fall of Herman Cain, the Republican candidate in the race to contest the 2012 US election, was as predictable as his rise was unexpected. Silvio Berlusconi’s business achievements are remarkable but as premier he has been undistinguished, even by the modest standards of Italian politics. If Michael Bloomberg is the most conspicuous recent exception to the rule that successful politicians are politicians, it is because the job of Mayor of New York City can be done well by someone who treats the role as that of chief executive.

The skills of the statesman are different from, and by no means compatible with, the skills of the technocrat. It cuts both ways. Someone who has made a name in politics is unlikely to have interesting original views on the transmission mechanism of quantitative easing, or fresh insights into political philosophy.

Effective governance requires the multiplicity of talents found only in teams. Teams should not be confused with committees – groups make better decisions when the members are dissimilar than when they have a common background. I should not be prime minister, but I would like to imagine that I could be useful to someone who was. (Sorry David Cameron, I am otherwise engaged).

When political leaders imagined they derived authority by divine right, they were tempted to believe that they had all the necessary talents – that they added the wisdom of Socrates and the military prowess of Alexander to the rhetorical skills of Cicero. The principal basis for this belief was the ability to cut off the heads of those who challenged it. The rise of democracy and the rule of law undermined the majesty of the king but there has been a recent revival: not only in politics, but particularly in business, where the cult of the heroic chief executives has gained wide acceptance especially among chief executives.

But the abilities of such figures typically fall far short of those required to exercise all the functions relevant to good decisions. Worse, maintaining that self confidence requires that you surround yourself, not by trusted advisers with a variety of technical skills, but by courtiers who will defer to your exceptional wisdom. You thus shut yourself off from the range of analysis and information which effective decision making requires.

That is how things have been, not just at the courts of Kim Il Sung and Mr Berlusconi, but also at those of Dick Fuld and Gordon Brown. In the run-up to the Iraq War advice was often valued mainly for its conformity with what listeners wanted to hear, or the loyalty of those who delivered it. Special advisers were introduced in British politics with the necessary purpose of providing ministers with missing expertise. But these roles are now mainly occupied by trainee politicians. Properly part of the royal household rather than the council of state, their influence has diminished, not enhanced, the quality and diversity of advice available to our rulers.

Machiavelli understood well that the prince and his secretary had different roles and that each needed the other. He wrote that government requires a fox to see the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Have sympathy for Messrs Papademos and Monti, foxes robed as lions in the hope of putting the wolves to flight.

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