The absence of real statecraft is damaging our country from without and within, says Simon Heffer
In his so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968, Enoch Powell began with the observation that “the prime function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.” Statesmanship was too often thwarted, he reflected, because of “the besetting temptation of all politics to concern itself with the immediate present at the expense of the future.” There is nothing new under the sun, but at least in Powell’s day ministers had a better grasp of how to make the immediate present more palatable. Today, we seem to lack even that consolation.
The pandemic wasn’t a preventable evil, though its scale perhaps was; certainly, some of its unintended consequences suggest a governing class unequal to the real duties of statecraft. The present government resembles a collection of superannuated student politicians playing with a train set called the United Kingdom. And like too many reckless children with their toys, this one is getting broken.
Statesmanship should be about service, and about performing it with care, judiciousness and (Powell’s point) foresight. There has been precious little evidence of any of that during Boris Johnson’s rule as prime minister, which began in July 2019. Johnson himself set the standard for solicitude in the winter of 2020, missing the first five crucial COBRA meetings convened to discuss a pandemic already ravaging northern Italy, and heading here rapidly. There was little sign then of his fervour to protect “our NHS” or the lives of our people. Why did he miss the five meetings? It was reported (accurately) that he and his fiancée were at Chevening on a “holiday”, and later (inaccurately) that he was working on a book about Shakespeare. We know that last claim was inaccurate because we have since learned (accurately) that he is still seeking to recruit a genuine Shakespeare scholar to write it for him.
Even if he had been engaged in the highest scholarly activity – and he wasn’t – it would have been outrageous to neglect his official duties to do so. Not that his pot-boiler on Shakespeare even promises to impersonate elevated scholarship. He is doing it to make money, a pursuit that has become one of his obsessions. Perhaps that’s hardly surprising, given the number of children he has fathered – rumoured to be in double figures, publicly recognised or not. Even some of his colleagues admit that Johnson’s fretting about where the next hundred thousand is coming from is an unhealthy preoccupation, diverting him from the basics of governing. It’s a fine philosophical point whether he, or the parliamentary party that keeps him in power, ought to be the more ashamed.
Being a poor prime minister, it suits him to surround himself with a poor Cabinet: too many higher-calibre ministers would show him up and expose his lack of grip
Being a poor prime minister, it suits him to surround himself with a poor cabinet: too many higher-calibre ministers would show him up and expose his lack of grip. Admittedly, he did use his September reshuffle to remove the single most incompetent minister, Gavin Williamson, whose pitifulness as Education Secretary I wrote about in these pages shortly before his defenestration. He also disposed of Robert Jenrick, whose statesmanlike judgment about his duties as Communities Secretary included unlawfully granting permission for Richard Desmond, the property magnate and Tory donor, to build a £1bn development in London Docklands. The Government’s own planning inspector had rejected the plan because of its lack of affordable housing and because its scale would be detrimental to the area. It wasn’t Jenrick’s only offence concerning party donors, and even in the moral sink that is the Johnson administration, he had to go.
But Johnson also sacrificed his justice secretary, Robert Buckland, to provide a face-saving job for Dominic Raab, one of whose last acts as foreign secretary was to prefer his Cretan sun-lounger to the demands of Whitehall while Britain was enduring a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. In recent years the judiciary have vilified some of the incompetents sent to the Ministry of Justice – notably Chris Grayling and, ironically, Raab’s replacement at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss – but Buckland, after a shaky start, won their confidence. He shared the legal profession’s horror at the massive backlog in the criminal courts caused by their limited operation during the pandemic. Buckland failed to convince his senior colleagues of the gravity of the situation, and his removal was the price he paid for taking problems, rather than solutions, to a prime minister who simply cannot cope when crises pile up.
Yet Johnson retained several ministers whose performances were no better than most of those who were dismissed, and who only looked good by comparison with the hapless Williamson. In light of Britain’s latest attempt to emulate the third world – the lack of qualified drivers of heavy goods vehicles that has resulted in fuel and food shortages and the promise of a bleak Christmas – it’s worth asking questions about the quality of statesmanship inherent in the man responsible for England’s transport regulation, services and infrastructure, Grant Shapps.
One should not judge the man holding this vital office of state by the fact that his Wikipedia entry boasts that he passed five O-levels, including a B in woodwork. Of course, it does not take a towering intellect to master the nation’s transport requirements, but it does require serious attention to detail, an ability to think strategically and a sense of practicality. It is unclear whether Shapps has any of these qualities. And having been exposed for deploying three pseudonyms (one of which was “Corinne Stockheath”, striking an early blow for gender fluidity) during his previous controversial business career, he does not seem entirely straightforward.
But Shapps is good at doing as he’s told. Throughout the pandemic, it has been his job either to facilitate or ruin Britons’ holidays by telling them where they can or can’t travel, with or without certain degrees of quarantine, testing or vaccination. Clarity was essential in this role, and he certainly had that; but he was simply parroting decisions taken by the government’s medical advisers and civil servants, rather than displaying any capacity for independent thought. The old adage that “civil servants advise, and ministers decide” has been well and truly buried in his case.
But Shapps is good at doing as he’s told. Throughout the pandemic, it has been his job either to facilitate or ruin Britons’ holidays by telling them where they can or can’t travel, with or without certain degrees of quarantine, testing or vaccination
It might have occurred to a more strategically-gifted minister, for example, that if the regulatory authorities for which he is responsible had been unable to test would-be HGV drivers for months during the pandemic – thereby creating an eventual backlog of 54,000 potential drivers – this would soon result in a shortage of such drivers, and all that entails. As Secretary of State for Transport, it might be thought that Shapps would be concerned about the inability of the car economy to function when tankers cannot deliver the country’s supposedly abundant supplies of fuel; about the doctors, nurses, teachers, police and other essential staff unable to get to work; and the food not able to be delivered to supermarkets. Quite rightly, the state regulates the proficiency to drive HGVs through testing. Knowing, as one must presume Shapps did, that tens of thousands of potential drivers were not being tested, he should have arranged testing within the necessary pandemic safeguards. But it seems never to have occurred to him.
Similarly, the unlamented former health secretary, Matt Hancock, was too busy grandstanding and relishing restricting our liberties – while taking a few of his own in pursuit of a mistress – to address the failure of the NHS to test people with serious diseases other than Covid, such as cancer. Nor did he appear to grasp the realities of a service that was buckling before Covid and is in a worse state now; nor bring any influence to bear on either the prime minister or the Treasury to ensure real increases in funding. Friends of Sajid Javid, Hancock’s successor, say that his unusually low public profile since taking over is largely because of the awesome scope of the problems he has inherited.
But then thinking ahead is alien to much of this government: it is all about the present exercise of power and not about “the prevention of preventable evils”. It is not just the low calibre of so many ministers, but their lack of experience, either in politics or in the world outside Westminster. It’s why Williamson was never able to engage with the problems the pandemic would provide for those taking public examinations. Similarly, he never properly understood that his so-called “free speech Bill” would only scratch the surface of the problems plaguing higher education, where identity politics threatens academic freedom and freedom of expression, damaging students who are the future of the country. The unfortunate Buckland did see the difficulties with the backlog of criminal cases – where someone offending today might wait two and a half years before having their day in court (if the crime is not terribly serious) – and the mockery they make of the rule of law.
The flight from Afghanistan was the worst debacle: Johnson and Raab, the latter on holiday and the former effectively on permanent vacation from his true responsibilities, presided over a disorderly withdrawal, despite the best efforts of an overstretched and underfunded British Army
Yet it is perhaps on the international stage that our absence of true statesmanship causes Britain the greatest humiliation. To “get Brexit done” Johnson accepted a settlement that included the Northern Ireland protocol; within six months of winning an election on that premise he sought to break international law by threatening to abrogate it. Because of his flippant and slapdash approach to politics, he failed to grasp what the treaty meant when he concluded it. More recently, together with Joe Biden, who has similarly disappointed on the world stage, Johnson concluded the recent AUKUS pact with Australia without beginning to understand the diplomatic damage it would cause to Britain’s other allies, notably France. The flight from Afghanistan was the worst debacle: Johnson and Raab, the latter on holiday and the former effectively on permanent vacation from his true responsibilities, presided over a disorderly withdrawal, despite the best efforts of an overstretched and underfunded British Army. America was at even greater fault; but the impression our joint impotence created among those regimes who do not necessarily wish us well, such as China, Russia and Iran, was one of amateurishness and decadence.
Statesmanship, in any true understanding of the term, requires not just that ministers exercise wisdom to safeguard the domestic interests of those who elect them, but to ensure the security and diplomatic effectiveness of the nation in the world. The present ministry does no such thing. Indeed, it is possible that the only person of influence with a serious grasp of what statesmanship entails – and why in its purest form it is democracy’s greatest safeguard of the nation and its people – is our most experienced practitioner of statecraft, the Queen. One wonders what she must say to some of her ministers, not least her prime minister, in the privacy of an audience; or, indeed, the nature of the private thoughts she might have about them. After all, she had the clearest experience of the abandonment of statesmanship when, in the autumn of 2019, her prime minister sent Jacob Rees-Mogg to Balmoral to lie to her about the need to prorogue parliament – something the courts subsequently overturned. It was more proof than one could ever need that some very basic rules of how to govern have been ignored and then forgotten. Britain is being served abysmally as a result. The results are all around us, and they are multiplying.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham