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In my last post I made some excuses for what I called “mistaken mini-decisions” that can happen during a sequence of events, but without the whole project ending in disaster.

On the other hand, most books on decision making feature a catalogue of nightmares that belong in the Chamber of Horrors. Obvious examples might include:

• Barbarossa – Hitler’s invasion of Russia that cost him the war. Main Decision Trap – Condemned to Repeat the Experiences (failure to learn from Napoleon’s equally catastrophic campaign)
• The Bay of Pigs – Kennedy’s fiasco in Cuba. Decision Trap – Group Failure (refusal to accept that a group of seriously bright people can all be wrong)
• The collapse of Enron. Decision Trap – Delusion (Lay and Skilling convincing themselves they wouldn’t be found out)
• The Brown Government’s management of the country’s finances. I have only room for a few Decision Traps:

o Undue Optimism – Optimistic about outcomes and blind to potential disaster
o Downside Delusion – Underestimating risks, and assuming too much control over future events
o ‘What if’ Wearout – Not being rigorous enough in looking at possible scenarios
o Outcome Blindness – Failure to accept bad news when it is staring you in the face
o Policy Pride – Sticking to a policy when it had obviously failed

These were celebrated BAD decisions.

I also worry about questionable decisions that can make bad situations worse. This very morning, and within minutes, Chris Huehne has had to resign from the Government, and John Terry has been stripped of the England Football Captaincy. I am not writing about any bad decisions Huehne or Terry might or might not have made.

What links these two high profile characters – apart from the awkward fact that neither is particularly popular or loved? Both have been charged with a criminal offence. But their cases haven’t come up yet– and they have absolutely not been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

We used to have the presumption of innocence until found guilty. When did we lose that principle? And why?

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There could hardly be a bigger contrast between our own politics, and what happens in the US, where everyone is currently taken up with the race for the Republican nomination. Gingrich and Romney are predictably vying for who can offer most to the right and centre of their party. No surprise there. That has been what opposition parties have always done in election year. And indeed what most politicians everywhere do.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph had a splash headline on the Conservative-led coalition’s plan to tax the wealthy. On TV, radio and in the press Ed Miliband was vocal about his determination not to be swayed by union opposition to Labour’s support for public sector pay cuts and control.

Am I the only person who is baffled by the apparent disconnect between the two main parties and their traditional supporter bases?

Is it all about courting the famous Squeezed Middle?

But if it is, how come the Liberal Democrats, who are supposed to be in the middle ground, have become (in voice, if not in the Cabinet) more radical than Labour? We’ll come back to that.

You can understand the Conservative dilemma in their unfamiliar coalition situation. With no overall majority, it is vital to keep the Lib Dems happy enough for them to continue to maintain the Government in power. Placating Clegg, Cable and Huhne has led to some unfamiliar policy making. Equally it has been obvious how keen most of the senior Lib Dems are on staying in Government.

But as 7th May 2015 approaches, expect to see some more typically Conservative initiatives. Cameron and his inner circle will be determined not to repeat the mistake of the 2010 election – not fighting hard for every seat. The party’s best hope of remaining in power for an extended period (which, make no mistake, is the main driver for all politicians) is to win a substantial overall majority.

It will also be interesting to follow the Lib Dems strategy as election time approaches – always assuming they stay inside the coalition. Will they revert to the radical line they have increasingly taken since the departure of Menzies Campbell, or will they hang on to some of the consensus policies put forward in Government?

Labour’s is a different dilemma. We have grown used to the New Labour / Old Labour standoff. Under Miliband, there seems to be a kind of third way: not Brownite, not Blairite, and unrecognisable to any erstwhile Labour frontbenchers, except possibly for David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams before the big breakaway. It looks far more like a European Social Democrat agenda.

What on earth do voters make of all this? Will they be seeing all the philosophising, and jockeying for space in the middle ground, as a refreshing change from the Ya Boo politics of yesteryear?

Possibly. Or they might just be puzzled, and nostalgic for what used to pass for enlightened self interest. Earnest altruism might take off – but don’t bet the house on it!

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In the light of President Obama’s decision to cut defence expenditure by up to $1tr, I want to write about the Monroe Doctrine. It is one of the most famous, far reaching and long lasting pronouncements in American history.

Despite her political links, it was not issued by Marilyn, but by the fifth President James Monroe, and it was apparently written by his successor, John Quincy Adams – then Secretary of State.

Our good friend Wikipedia summarises the document (dated 2nd December 1823) as follows:
The essence [of the Doctrine] is expressed in two key passages; the first is the introductory statement:
The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.
The second key passage, a fuller statement of the Doctrine, is addressed to the “allied powers” of Europe (that is, the Holy Alliance); it clarifies that the United States remains neutral on existing European colonies in the Americas but is opposed to “interpositions” that would create new colonies among the newly independent Spanish American republics:]
We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

The Monroe Doctrine was effectively in force for nearly a hundred years – until America’s intervention in the First World War, in fact. The Doctrine might on the face of it have been about discouraging European powers from any further colonial ambitions in the Americas. But it became the outward expression of the determination of the fledgling USA not to become embroiled in European disputes.

In a word, it was a manifesto for isolationism.

The history of the last 70 years has seen the US successively save the Allies’ bacon in the Second World War, and then fight in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, quite apart from leading NATO operations across the globe. It is hard for the world citizens of 2012 to imagine an isolationist America.

What worries me about Obama’s defence cuts, especially if he is re-elected, is that a tired America, beset by economic woes and other domestic strife, might decide to retreat behind the shield created by Monroe and Quincy Adams.

Tough for us. Tough for NATO.

And how tempting for China, Russia, Iran, Al Qaeda and any other malevolent powers who would find it hard to resist the opportunities presented by a weakened America.

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Last Thursday President Obama held a press conference at the Pentagon to announce a cut in the US defence budget of nearly $500bn over the next ten years, with provision maybe for a further $500bn reduction.

So why am I still writing about it four days later?

Because some decisions are just so important that their relevance is not dependent on being a hot news item.

I am surprised by the way that so little journalistic comment has been forthcoming on the priceless footage and stills of the leaders of the US armed forces as they stood stone-faced alongside and behind the President. You only have to view Parliament on TV to see what a mixed blessing it is for the PM and other ministers to speak in the House alongside their “supporters” whose faces are often a picture. Even in my day job sitting in pitches, it is highly informative watching the agency folk who are not on their feet displaying what is frequently less than supportive body language while their colleagues present!

If the US are serious about abandoning important aspects of their role as global policeman, that is something we have to take very seriously indeed.

Make no mistake, America has been both the leader of what we used to call the free world, and our biggest ally, since they decisively entered the First World War in 1917. There was of course a period of neutrality between the wars and for the first two years of World War II. However once Japan had attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and declared war on the US immediately followed by Germany and Italy doing the same thing, the role of the USA was determined, and has effectively remained constant for no less than seventy years.

Crucial questions arise from Obama’s announcement:
• Should we take his words at their face value? (Dangerous when you are dealing with any politician – especially one as powerful as the President of the United States)
• Does he really believe that the US will be as effective in military terms on much lower expenditure?
• Is he being disingenuous in pretending that his new defence vision is strategic, as opposed to the reaction to severe economic problems we had imagined it was?
• How realistic is it to base future military activity on discarding tried and tested Cold War hardware and operations, and investing in new technology, like surveillance, drones, more sophisticated intelligence etc?
• And doesn’t re-equipping with new stuff involve major capital cost?
• How sensible is it to base future strategy on neutralising China, when shorter term threats could come from Iran, the Gulf, the North West Frontier, and even Russia?

I am equipped to ask the questions, but not to answer them. But I do hope this will stimulate a debate.

What I intend to write about in future blogs this week is what it means for the UK, NATO and Europe. Will the changes in Washington make us more or less safe? Do US cutbacks mean that we will have to spend more?

Moreover, if Obama’s real ambition – if re-elected – is to launch a twenty first century version of the Monroe Doctrine, what are the implications for our foreign and defence policy?

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A very Happy New Year to all my readers. Apologies for the long radio silence. Two reasons: the festive season of course, and some massive editing sessions, with the deadline approaching fast for “DECIDE. Better ways to make better decisions”.

I thought it was an unusually quiet holiday period. In recent years there has always seemed to be either a natural disaster, a major terrorist outrage, or both. But 2012 has happily come in like a lamb, apart from some very lively weather – notably here in the Channel Islands, where the gales threatened to blow us all into the sea.

I have always been a fan of Radio 5 live, which has been my main source of news. It has been one light news day after another. Maybe very little was happening out there. Or just maybe it was a function of the station’s move to Salford Quays. Is it just me, or has the station suffered a fall in standards? Apart from losing some favourite presenters, and being assailed by a cadre of mournful newcomers from Northern Ireland and the North West, my least favourite innovation has been doing the phone-ins in front of a studio audience. Nightmare! Both callers and presenters grandstand to the tittering audience. Might have been a breakthrough in 1957, but I predict it won’t be a hit.

New Year is a good excuse to make predictions, so here are my top 5, in no particular order:

1. Obama will have a surprisingly rough ride against whoever emerges from the chaos of the Republican caucuses, primaries and so on
2. Cameron will be far more assertive in 2012, with much less looking over his shoulder at his Lib Dem ‘colleagues’
3. The worldwide banking system will withstand the huge pressures it has been under, and stock markets will have rallied substantially by mid-year
4. There will be the first signs of the – long overdue – reintegration of major creative and media agencies
5. England teams in Rugby, Football, Cricket and the Olympic Games will disappoint and frustrate their legions of fans by substantially underperforming

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This post comes to you from New York City.

Guess what? The news bulletins here are completely free of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, the Eurozone and the VETO.

But this good news is heavily compromised by blanket coverage of the biggest game show of all: The 57th quadrennial Presidential Election – 2012.

Obama is – quite rightly – concentrating on being President and acting presidentially. Meanwhile Gingrich and Romney are everywhere – on the stomp, dishing out the dirt to each other, and getting plenty back from hostile audiences.

It is a strange system when you think about it. The Constitution provides for over 300 million people to have an indirect method of electing just one of two people to lead not just the US, but much of the world. (OK there have been some third party candidates, but only Teddy Roosevelt, in 1912, managed to come second, and he was an ex-President)

The build-up takes well over a year and, depending who is currently President, either the Republican or Democrat candidates spend months and millions of dollars beating seven bells out of each other. If the President is really unpopular, or is a lame duck (having served two terms already), both sets of candidates spend far more time attacking each other than (as we say in Westminster) the party opposite.

In the last week Mitt Romney has called Newt Gingrich both “a bomb thrower” and “zany” (which is apparently a horrendous insult in these parts). Gingrich shot back that perhaps Romney might want to return all the money he earned at Bain Capital, “bankrupting companies and laying off employees.”

Somehow the whole US Election thing lacks gravitas now it’s a glove fighting a salamander for the right to challenge a hut (with one ‘r’).

I yearn for the days when Presidents had names from Abraham to Zachary, via Calvin, Millard and Woodrow.

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Decision making doesn’t normally command too many column inches – least of all on the front pages – but in the aftermath of the early morning car crash that concluded the Brussels summit, it has been hard to read about anything else.

From what we know about decision theory, did Mr Cameron make the right decision?

Let’s first look at the pressure he was under, and the options on the table. As with many decision makers at the highest level, he was effectively playing three dimensional chess:

1. As the British Prime Minister he was having no fun at all espousing a viewpoint very different from that of the French President and the German Chancellor. They had made common cause to try and persuade their 25 fellow EU members to adopt much tighter controls over budget making and fiscal policy
2. As a Conservative PM he was being side-swiped by the Eurosceptic wing of his party…
3. …at the same time as his Lib Dem coalition partners were putting pressure on him not to rock the European boat

But what about expectations among the participants?

• The going-in assumption in Downing Street and Whitehall was that the Brussels meeting would be an opportunity to negotiate some concessions for Britain as a non-member of the Eurozone, to protect the City against unwanted interference.

• The going-in assumption for all the other governments was that the purpose of the summit was to agree a treaty to save the Euro.

David Cameron was on a hiding to nothing. There were no attractive options on the table.

He couldn’t agree to a treaty that gave no concessions to Britain. His enthusiasm for saving the Euro, which is only an indirect reality for us, was minimal unless he had something to show for his defiant resistance to threats to our financial markets and the million people in the UK who work in the financial services industry. The idea that as a price for unanimity we along with other EU countries should have to submit our budgets to Brussels, was unthinkable.

The Prime Minister now has to cope with being damned with faint praise and dire warnings from Messrs Clegg and Cable. But he knows the Lib Dems have as much chance of independent electoral success as Robbie Savage of getting a 10 from Craig Revel Horwood.

He can also take Ken Clarke’s criticism. A swift reshuffle would remove him and any other Tory ministerial critics.

Is he worried about Mr Miliband’s allegation that he “spectacularly mishandled the talks”? Given the Labour Leader’s credentials as a statesman, and his latest poll ratings…. probably not.

But is the medium and long term outlook good?

No:

• The UK economy is not growing
• Our biggest trading partners in Europe are struggling
• The Euro is far from safe with Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal in no way out of the wood
• Our banks (including the ones under public ownership) are vulnerable to all of the above, nor is the City protected from future EU assault

The Prime Minister is the living proof of the First Law of Really Difficult Decisions: whichever option you choose, and whatever decision you make, the downsides will be worse than the upsides.

It wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t easy making a decision at 4am with no allies, widespread hostility, and a mannerless French President behaving like a spoilt soccer star.

Good decision? Least worst probably. But in deciding under pressure, Cameron showed courage, and he is going to need more and more of that commodity in the months and years to come.

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It is now a commonplace to hear critics of the Coalition’s economic policies saying, “they never had a Plan B”. Presumably they mean that the new Government decided on an immediate debt reduction programme without considering other options.

Personally I doubt that. After so many years out of power (14 years for the Conservatives, 96 for the Liberal Democrats) it wasn’t exactly the obvious decision to risk alienating virtually the whole population with cuts in their standard of living.

The policies announced by Cameron, Osborne and Clegg were pretty much the only sensible solution to the economic disaster which confronted them. The Coalition must have calculated that the unpopularity that lay ahead was more than compensated for by the rightness of the decision, and the hope that drastic pruning would eventually produce a healthier tree.

But no one back in early summer 2010 was predicting meltdown in the Eurozone. The Bank of England’s forecast for the UK economy was very modest growth. Over and above the disastrous situation faced by our biggest trading partners in Continental Europe, we have seen a serious rise in inflation, spurred not least by an explosion in fuel prices.

So now what will the Government do?

Surely they are now working on, and will shortly unveil. Plan B. Not the alternative Plan B, but the sequential Plan B.

Everyone who makes a big decision realises that it is a journey, not a single step. Generals, transitional governments, CEOs, even football and rugby managers, and cricket captains need a follow-up plan if the big decision doesn’t work out quite as planned.

Cameron is talking about easing credit restrictions and stimulating housing starts. Osborne admitted yesterday that debt reduction is running a year behind schedule. Lack of growth will cause further economic problems, unless action is taken. Soaring unemployment has major political and social, as well as economic, consequences. Youth unemployment threatens the validity of the country’s educational strategy as school and college leavers join their predecessors on benefits.

The Plan B designed to put things right – or at least setting them on a more positive course – must be on the stocks now. When announced, will it be an admission of failure, or a demonstration of sensible decision making?

We all know how important it is to weigh up pros, cons, and all available data and factors before coming to a serious decision. What is sometimes forgotten is that the making of a decision is just the first step. It then has to be implemented and managed.

Plan B is part of that management.

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The front page headline in today’s The Times reads “Give women priority for
top law jobs, judge urges”. Lord Neuburger, the Master of the Rolls, pleads for
action to give some balance to the current skew in favour of male judges:
*10 out of 11 on the Supreme Court
*5 out of 5 Heads of High Court Divisions
*33 out of 37 on the Court of Appeal
*91 out of 108 at the High Court

Lord Neuburger could do worse that follow our “Good Decisions Guide”:
1. Clarity on your goal: more female judges

2. Best data and intelligence – and keep looking for more: see the numbers above. Hard to imagine more persuasive figures

3.Frame – and if necessary keep on framing till the problem is well and truly defined: problem is pretty simple. Not
enough women at the top of the legal profession, despite their being plenty of
female talent at lower levels

4. Structure the most viable options for solving the problem: some degree of positive discrimination – main
question, what is the smartest way to bring it about?

5. Reward / risk analysis, ensuring that you are not swayed too much by the attractiveness of an option if it has a
dangerous downside: only downside would be if there is any evidence that women judges
underperform their male counterparts. There is no such evidence. If there is a
worry that fewer new judges will be men, that will affect only a tiny number of candidates not the overall gender
balance, which will become more reasonable

7. Make the decision, having carefully
balanced upside reward and downside risk: set in train some degree of positive
discrimination

8. Communicate: Government make an announcement

9. Implement: press the button

 

So what’s holding back the Government, the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary? Actually it is something called the Equality Act.

Isn’t there a degree of irony here? Wouldn’t you think that redressing
unfair distribution of top jobs between men and women (not to mention making
life arguably fairer for female litigants and defendants) might be in the
spirit of the Equality Act?

Being female, since last year’s revision of the Act, is now known as a “Protected
Characteristic”. Subsection 4c of section 159 of the Act says this about
positive discrimination in recruitment in favour of those with protected
characteristics: “Taking the action in question is a proportionate way of
achieving [this] aim”.

Lord Neuburger, interviewed by The
Times
, says he is uneasy about going beyond favouring female candidates
when they are of equal ability.

But why? If we have a gross disparity in favour of men, shouldn’t the
Equality Act be used for what was presumably its prime purpose, to promote
equality of opportunity? Waiting for the balance to be redressed over long years
will not achieve that.

Which is the greater good? A more balanced judiciary, or what might
emerge as preventing a number of individual hard luck cases among aspirant male
barristers and solicitors? Not too difficult surely. It is not as if the men
who have been passed over can’t continue to earn a good living and play a
prominent part in making the law work.

 

 

 

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Finley Peter Dunne was a famous satirical writer in Chicago at the turn of the nineteenth century. He created the character ‘Mr Dooley’, a poor Irish immigrant from County Roscommon. The Mr Dooley essays and sketches poked fun at what passed in those days for the Yankee establishment.

Douglas Alexander is the Shadow Foreign Secretary. Today on the Andrew Marr Programme he said, “I think the job of the Church is not simply to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable”.

I am always suspicious of politicians (particularly when they are talking outside their brief) who pinch other people’s lines with no trace of an acknowledgement. You’ve guessed it, the “comfort/afflict” quote was coined by Mr Dooley 110 years ago, when he said it was the job of a newspaper. This was a thought echoed by Gene Kelly in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind. Since then it has been used by Clare Booth Luce in a eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt, and at least one Archbishop of Canterbury and no doubt numerous others in the context of the Church.

I’m assuming that Labour’s spin doctors thought that today would be a good moment for Mr Alexander to ‘coin’ a winning phrase in support of his leader’s slightly odd piece in today’s Observer.

Ed Miliband is understandably keen to cash in with qualified endorsement of the St Paul’s protesters to score a few points.
He wrote, “The challenge is that they reflect a crisis of concern for millions of people about the biggest issue of our time: the gap between their values and the way our country is run. I am determined that mainstream politics, and the Labour Party in particular, speaks to that crisis and rises to the challenge. The deeper issues raised by the current crisis are too important to be left shivering on the steps of St Paul’s. Many people will not agree with the protesters, but feel let down by aspects of business, finance and politics which seem in touch with the richest 1% – but badly out of touch with the reality facing the other 99%”.

This is something of a Damascene conversion. His predecessors as Labour Party leader, Prime Ministers Blair and Brown were, by definition the leading politicians of their day from 1997 to 2010, and pretty cosy with the powers that be in business and finance.
I don’t recall either Tony or Gordon afflicting the comfortable. Indeed they were pretty comfortable themselves until it was obvious that their ultra generous spending of OUR money had virtually bankrupted the country.

Meanwhile politicians of all parties had been enjoying a lucrative personal game of “let’s have some of that” until the Daily Telegraph blew the whistle.

However I do absolutely agree with Mr Miliband that “only the most reckless” will ignore the core message of the worldwide protests. The nightmare that is Greece (not forgetting dozens of the world’s much poorer countries) is eloquent testimony to what happens in a million micro family and individual scenarios when macro madness runs unchecked.

It is the story of the afflicted being afflicted even more. If as a world community, an EU and a Britain we ignore the lesson, God help us.

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