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Could Bernard Jenkin and Iain Duncan Smith be 2nd Tier thinkers?

Maybe there is some hope of 2nd Tier thinking emerging amongst UK politicians….?

I was greatly heartened yesterday to hear Bernard Jenkin, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme call for strategic thinking to create a “deep and sustained analysis of what kind of country we want to be in 10 or  20 years time.”

Jenkin, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), was being interviewed about the Committee’s report, ‘Who does UK National Strategy?’, published mere hours before the first part of the Government’s Strategic & Security Defence Review.

The Committee’s report suggested there was a tendency for Whitehall to “muddle through”. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were cited as examples where there had been a lack of over-arching strategy.

The report also warned that the UK’s capacity to think strategically had been undermined by assumptions that its national interests are best served by its relationship with the US and economic links within the European Union – “Uncritical acceptance of these assumptions has led to a waning of our interests in, and ability to make, national strategy,”

Unfortunately Foreign Secretary William Hague attempted to make political capital from the report, saying it showed a “chronic lack of strategic thinking in Britain’s foreign and security policy” in recent years. In other words, it’s all Labour’s fault! Perhaps Hague’s response was inevitable, given the fractious relations between the Coalition Government and Ed Milliband’s increasingly left-leaning Opposition; but I could have hoped for better from a politician who has often displayed a high complexity of thinking alongside rough and ready practicality.

In spite of Hague’s rhetoric that: “Under this government there is a proper mechanism for the bringing together of strategic decisions about our security, defence, diplomacy and development, after years of ad-hoc thinking and poor decision- making.” – he was given only guarded approval by Jenkin in his Today interview. Jenkin acknowledged Hague’s vision in foreign policy but lamented that very little was being done in Whitehall to make it effective.

The need for strategic thinking
Bernard Jenkin is a rather controversial character. A seemingly-tireless self-promoter who got hurt in last year’s parliamentary expenses scandal, he wears his convictions on his sleeve (limited integration with the EU, anti-proportional representation) and appears to expect everyone else to treat them as the only sane option. Nonetheless, he is absolutely right about the need for strategic thinking and the tactical way in which he has exposed the lack of it without overtly undermining the Coalition Government smacks of a certain brilliance.

While the remit of its report is defence, the PASC yesterday caught the whole of Whitehall in its sights: “We welcome the new Government’s aspiration to think more strategically, but when we tried to find out who actually does UK National Strategy, virtually all the evidence we took suggests the answer is ‘no one’. Ministers are in danger of announcing a Strategic & Security Defence Review that is anything but ‘strategic’. Whitehall has fallen out of the habit of strategic thinking.  Different departments think about strategy in different ways, often at cross-purposes.”

In his Today interview, Jenkin expanded on this: “…we’ve lost the art of strategic thinking…. There needs to be much better cross-departmental working. For example, the Treasury, their strategy is clearly deficit reduction but it’s not the only strategic imperative facing us….”

A key element in Jenkin’s brilliance has been to say all the traditional assumptions should go under the microscope and to call for truly radical thinking which takes into account the resources available. For example, he told Today: “If we’re going to have to live in a much smaller envelope, how do we completely reorganise the way we do defence? Instead it’s been about Okay what do we have to cut?”

This very much reflects my Cameron & Clegg: where’s the Vision? Blog when I wrote: “…what kind of Britain do Cameron and Clegg want us to become? Do they know? And, if they do, when are they going to tell us?”

The Big Society sounds like it might actually result in effective taking up of some of the slack as the public sector is shredded in the coming years…but what will the Big Society look like? What kind of people are expected to inhabit it?

When Jenkin asks, “…what kind of country we want to be in 10 or  20 years time?” – he’s going along very similar lines.

Having the capacity for strategic thinking
That David Cameron and Nick Clegg, together or separately, have yet to articulate a vision of transformed Britain beyond the most woolly philosophy, may not just represent the difficulty in bringing together 2 very different political traditions. It may also reflect a lowered capacity within government to develop strategic thinking.

As Jenkin told Today: “You need the research and assessment staff who are going to do the analysis and assessments…. There used to be… a six-month course at the Civil Service College for strategic thinking. Now there is a one-week module. It’s that kind of reduction in the importance of  strategic thinking that’s being denied.”

It’s perhaps telling that the minister who most completely has a vision for his area of responsibility and who had the arguments so well prepared he managed to get the key points through the Treasury’s slashing was Iain Duncan Smith. His Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank, outside of the Whitehall malaise, has been researching and proposing options on social policy reform for years. Duncan Smith has had the benefit of substantial strategic thinking resources.

While the CSJ undoubtedly has a PURPLE/BLUE ‘family values’ bias in its fundamental assumptions about how society should work, there are clearly GREEN empathies both in the unrelenting distaste for poverty that underpins everything it does and in the way it connects up with so many charities. That it could guide Duncan Smith into preparing for a totally different way of thinking about welfare demonstrates the radical, daring thinking Jenkin calls for right across Whitehall. Again, one might well attribute 2nd Tier thinking to Duncan Smith and his team who have included the likes of psychologists Rod Morgan and Lawrence Sherman and maverick Labour MP Frank Field.

The cuts…from the BLUE vMEME or 2nd Tier thinking?
As the country braces itself for the most savage spending cuts since the early days of the Great Depression, there is no doubting the need to cut the defecit. Labour will say they’re much too soon, much too broad and much too deep – but Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were starting to head in a similar direction before their election defeat (if not at the same frantic pace!).

The question, to me, is: are we just cutting, cutting and cutting – driven by the BLUE vMEME’s drive to do ‘what’s right’, regardless of the human cost – or is there a vision for the shaping and reshaping – social construction – of a different kind of, hopefully better society. If it’s the latter, then it needs to come from 2nd Tier thinking – the kind of dazzling, daring thinking that’s comng from the CSJ.

Unfortunately, as Jenkin indicates, it seems highly unlikely that kind of thinking is widespread in Whitehall. It needs to be.

In his interview, Jenkin at one point was savaged by Today regular James McNaughtie for seeming to suggest that he was advocating the training and development of strategic thinkers at a time when Whitehall was meant to be cut back. Jenkin denied that he wanted to create a new department as such  but, as with the report, advocated an investment in the development of training and resources in strategic thinking.

Jenkin, again, is right. If we cannot develop – re-develop? – longer-term strategic thinking, then we risk being limited and trapped by myopic short-termism.

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  1. Eileen says

    here are some first thoughts on resding yr original comments.

    * I think it was the Thatcher Govt in the 80s (Bernard’s father Patrick
    Jenkin was a Minister in her Govt) that put a negative value on strategy
    work in Whitehall. I was there and that is my recollection.

    * Isn’t the Big Society their current Big Idea to replace the public
    services and reshape everything? Problem is that it is a rag bag of some
    good ideas but not stitched together strategically in any depth.

    * So much reinventing of the wheel with the loss of memory between
    generations. Thatcher’s era also abolished centralised procurement, and
    now the next generation bring in a businessman who says there needs to
    be centralised procurement for economies of scale. But re-centralising
    risks more bureaucracy and loss of managerial flexibility . And so it
    goes on.

    I agree also with your second comments, and especially to note that the extaordinary out-of-synch pay-offs in the banking sector are going to pour oil on smouldering fires. This seems one of the huge mistakes of the current politicians (all main parties) who seem to have no clue that any form of civil society acceptance of the huge pain they are about to inflict on the general population is probably impossible, if the bankers are seen to continue to rake in the cash in such obscene amounts. I can’t help wondering if these kinds of feelings and mix social and economic conditions were present leading up to the French Revolution of 1789, and the execution of the rich and then elite.

  2. keitherice says

    Hi, Steve

    Good to ‘hear’ your voice again!

    I’m sure you’re absolutely right about RED. We’re going to see lots of very angry RED.

    “I do what’s right. I work hard, pay my taxes and keep to the law. AND I LOSE MY JOB?!?!?”

    At that point, from a certain angle, doing what’s right no longer makes sense because there’s no longer any reward for it – bye bye BLUE thinking! As people lose their homes – with the consequent effects on relationships – PURPLE’s need for security will become compromised and the PURPLE way of thinking is undermined. Life is then a jungle in which aggressive and angry RED is the only vMEME response that seems to make any sense. Get angry, get revenge on the country which betrayed you when your only crime was to do what’s right.

    Of course, a very large number of the newly disenfranchised – the ‘repressed’, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s term – won’t revolt. But that won’t take away the anger. Cameron’s interaction with Lt Cdr Kris Ward on http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11578747 encapsulates the dilemma. The guy is incredibly deferential to Cameron as the Prime Minister babbles about “difficult decisions”…but not all 42,000 service personnel on the way to losing their livelihoods are going to be quite so accommodating.

    Cameron is likely going to need some of those new enhanced police armed response units to shoot demonstrators in the not too-distant future!

    You’re right to point to the French. The Greeks and the Spanish have already done a little protesting but the French protests are the most sustained so far. There are already some hints in Sarkozy’s language that force may be necessary to keep the country going. How the French demonstrations play out may well set the tone for the rest of Western Europe.

    Like you, I don’t see much ORANGE in the Coalition Government’s measures so far – and that’s really concerning because routes to wealth creation are the only way (other than forcible suppression) of avoiding some of the conflicts that are going to come. If people can see that the economy is going to turn and that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, their BLUE may hang on a bit in hope for a better future.

    But that won’t be helped at all by the bankers collecting their 6-figure bonuses. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some bankers don’t die at the hands of mobs.

    Have Cameron, Clegg et al thought all this through? Reading between the lines of what Bernard Jenkin has said, I somehow doubt it. IDS is like an oasis in a desert of 1st Tier thinking!

    I still want to know where it’s going to end up. Point us to a country with a standard of living that the ‘average Brit’ can expect to have in 5 years’ time and say, well, we think it’s going to end up like that. Like the Poles? The Cheks? The Romanians, even? Better get used to it…but with a Big Society philosophy we can help each other to make the best of a pretty bad situation. But tell us what ‘Big Society’ is and how it can work.

    These are momentous times when the Western way of life, as we have known it develop since World War II, may well change very, very radically.

    Thanks for stimulating these thoughts, Steve!

    Best

    Keith

  3. Steve Gorton says

    Keith

    Spot on and with the CSR more cut than consideration. Even though the PAC report took evidence from a small and largely internal rconstituency, it seemsthere are some who are more than a few brain cells to rub together. These mainly people who have or have had a proper job rather than school, university, political internal and the MP/Minister.

    Many of the doctrinal policies- eg NHS reorg, Police commissioners are not apparently thought through – an absence of a systems approach and holistic appreciation, which for me are hallmarks of effective strategic thinking. The bonfire of quangos without a costed business plan if another example.

    I wonder also for some of those involved in government if there are a few red memes in this dogmatic approach as well as the do what’s right (according to whom?) blue- certainly minimal orange and I am struggling to find much second tier green – though as you state IDS might have a few flashes.

    My onservation is that in some parts of society we will have a red meme reaction – whether it becomes as orange/red as the French fuel blockade re social welfare changes wiull be interesting.

    Sheers

    Steve