Why is the UK so badly governed?


By chance, last week, I watched a recording of Robin Cook’s resignation speech in the House of Commons. It was during the Iraq debate in March 2003 and it was impressive and convincing.

But there was something else about it which surprised me. It carried within it more than a whiff of dignity and gravitas, which I had not realised was missing. Nor was it just Robin Cook.

It seemed strange from the point of view of the post-crash, post Brexit vote world, fourteen years later, when we seem to take for granted our dissent, or poor opinion of the capabilities. intelligence, dignity and honesty of the ruling class. It looked peculiar because it made me realise there was a time, not long ago, when Parliament did not feel quite like that.

It is worth wondering why we have such low opinions of our leaders these days, and I have some suggestions:

  1. It is hard to forget the spectacle of members of the current cabinet arguing, with passion, for us to leave the EU as if it was a kind of game – one where they could promise anything but did not, apparently, feel any requirement to think through how to do it.
  2. The failure of UK leaders, in particular, to see the importance of banks which support the economies where they are based – a central requirement for inclusive growth – which still eludes them. So few lessons learned from the banking crash five years after Cook’s resignation, so little suffered by those whose misjudgement caused the disaster, so much suffered by those who did not.
  3. The vacuous commitment to a perverse version of free market ideology which renders leaders wholly impassive in the face of looming disaster – as long as the victims are likely to be poor (Grenfell Tower springs to mind).

This kind of contempt for our leaders provides the gap to let through lunatics of right and left. It is now up to those who might fill it with humanity and a new humane ideology to make the moves necessary to do so. That is why Radix exists.

But, before we go too far down the path of a new political ideology, it is worth asking the question why the UK has been so badly governed in recent decades. Why have the decisions taken been so poor, from the failure to use the profits from North Sea oil through to the Iraq War?

Is it the narrow class from which our leaders are drawn? Is it the way politics has become a career, so that those who rise to the top are those with the least experience of the world? Is it the malign influence of the Treasury, which measures everything in the most simplistic terms (would a football team rise to the top if they just looked at the bottom line?)? Is it that our education system is becoming narrower and more technocratic? Or is it the peculiarly English echo chamber of power, where nobody challenges entrenched views and nobody takes any decisions?

In other words, is the poor leadership of the UK a result of our failure to breed leaders?

I was confirmed in this diagnosis by meeting a former senior military figure now working in government who says that it is staggering how difficult it is to get his staff to decide anything.

So there is the problem. We have no leaders because we don’t encourage them.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Neil Crofts says

    Hi David

    Thank you for sharing this insight. Working in, studying and teaching leadership as I do I have been vexed by the same question. I am not sure I have any answers, but here are some ideas to add to the mix.

    1 – Leadership is unpopular in a stable environment. In any organisation when things are reasonably stable the preference is for management (reliability) rather than leadership (disruption).

    2 – Businesses and government don’t allow people to lead until too late. We employ bright young people and we ask them to specialise in some operational task for about 10 years. Once they are good at that task – we then expect them to be able to lead/manage others in the same discipline – this is not a reliable way to develop leaders. The military train leaders from a young age and expose them to real leadership quickly.

    3 – Leadership is unpopular at school. Teachers regard signs of leadership as trouble making and punish those who show signs of it.

  2. Donald J C Cameron says

    Our political system may have worked for the 19th Century but it is incompetent for the 21st.
    One party dominates from the Right and several parties share the Left and so mostly lose.
    The remedy is for the left to combine ONCE to have a majority and by a Bill abolish FPTP and establish PR by STV. Then after a new election more sensible debates, better decisions and good Leaders can emerge to get better government, as we see in more progressive countries.
    Our Education system needs drastic reformation and we should look at the way other countries like ? Finland do it better. Leadership and ability should be encouraged and child poverty reduced. Like more sensible countries we should abolish ALL our Private, Independent Schools as they create a distorting privileged elite in our society. The Upper Classes may not like that but it is better that Parliament do it now than at some future date it is done by blood in the streets. As Robespierre proved drastic revolution is never pleasant.

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