As Boris Johnson blustered his way into his latest hole, I suddenly remembered the psychologist Norman Dixon, author of the revelatory 1976 tome On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.
I have written before about the parallels with Dixon’s thesis about great British defeats – the Somme, Singapore and so on – and the whole Brexit process. I had not realised before that there were parallels also with the British way of doing politics.
His thesis was that the old idea that military incompetence was something to do with stupidity had to be set aside. Not only were the features of incompetence extraordinarily similar from military disaster to military disaster, but the military itself tended to choose people with the same psychological flaws. It led soldiers over the top to disaster, or to a frozen death, as in the Crimea.
These characteristics included arrogant underestimation of the enemy, the inability to learn from experience, resistance to new technologies or new tactics, and an aversion to reconnaissance and intelligence (in both senses of the word).
Other common themes are great physical bravery but little moral courage, an imperviousness to human suffering, passivity and indecision, and a tendency to lay the blame on others. They tend to have a love of the frontal assault – nothing too clever – and of smartness, precision and the military pecking order.
Dixon also described a tendency to eschew moderate risks for tasks so difficult that failure might seem excusable.
Therein lies the great paradox. To be a successful military commander, you need more flexibility of thought and hierarchy than is encouraged by the traditional military – or the traditional Conservative party, as the xenophobes take their place in the driving seat.
Political incompetence isn’t quite the same as military incompetence. The preference appears to be taught on the playing fields of Eton for blustering authoritarianism, the clever untruth rather than a genuine facing of facts – all the very opposite of Churchill’s devastating truth-telling in 1940.
Here is one reason why we don’t get the government we deserve – our ruling classes think somehow that truth-telling, consensus and intelligence is beneath them. It is why they seem unable to manage negotiation.
There is what is perhaps the most important lesson here about management, political or otherwise. It is that political incompetence tends to go along with ultra narrow understanding about human motivation – little more than stick and carrot, or bash and cash, both of which seem to be the mainspring of the Johnson approach.
These are people that really believe they “only understand one thing”. They cannot therefore lead.