It all started 27 years ago when the incoming prime minister, John Major, said he was aiming for “a nation at ease with itself”. After the revolutionary shocks of the Thatcherism he rightly perceived the nation wanted to draw the proverbial duvet over its head and comfort itself with “warm beer and cricket”. The scene was set for the rise of mediocrity – and we hope things change for 2017.
After Major came the oleaginous Tony Blair who managed to whisper sweet nothings into the nation’s ear for a whole decade – he said, “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy” in an interview in 2007. A man whose judgement of international players was so bad he remained in awe of George Bush, became a godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s infants in a white robed ceremony on the banks of the River Jordan, and in his retirement years aligned himself with colourful characters from former communist countries.
Then, finally, we were given David Cameron, almost a professional slumberer in his own right. He was the apotheosis of that Etonian desire to make governing look languidly effortless. The trouble was that he believed his own publicity and made little effort on anything, The EU being a prime example.
Former prime minister Harold Macmillan, in a sentence criticised for its Jew-consciousness, remarked of Margret Thatcher’s cabinet that it “had more old Estonians than old Etonians”. My, how the wheel came full circle, with no less than 12 members of that famous school in Cameron’s line-up. And thanks, in considerable part, to these three men and their acolytes, for more than a quarter of a century now we have become, what is known in financial circles as “risk–off”. We have become obsessed with measuring/testing everything in an effort to mitigate risk.
The result is that our NHS is swarming with managers measuring away and contributing nothing of worth to the nation’s health, our education system is staffed up to produce test data geared only to preparedness for the next OFSTED inspection, and the growth industry that has left all others for dead is compliance.
In our risk-off country mediocrity has paid very well indeed for those at the top. A study published by Lancaster University Management School just before January 2017 found that in the 11 years to 2014 the median pay package of FTSE 350 directors had increased by 82 per cent to £1.5m whereas the return on invested capital (net of the cost of capital) had been just 8.5 per cent.
This risk-off culture of mediocrity as John Hegarty, creative founder of the famous Bartle Bogle Hegarty agency, points out has spread to that most dynamic of industries, advertising. In an article for the FT published two days into 2017 and under the heading “Daring rather than data will save advertising,” he said: “It would be wonderful if we could simply feed a number of assumptions into a databank and wait for the suggested actions. Indeed, many marketing professionals believe that is the future-predictable, assured and safe. But life is not like that and neither is marketing.
“Steve Jobs or James Dyson did not build brilliant companies by waiting for a set of algorithms to tell them what to do. They built those companies by backing their own beliefs, innovating with technology that changed the way we think and behave, and then communicating those beliefs through the use of broadcast and other media. Persuasion and promotion.”
Indeed a quarter of a century of slumbering governments lumbering us with a plethora of over endowed entities of indifferent ability was perfectly rounded off with David Cameron’s resignation honours list. In amongst 46 gongs handed out were peerages for 13 of his advisors, some of whom are barely in long trousers and all of whom are failures by dint of his resignation. Not forgetting the OBE for Samantha Cameron’s stylist who I suppose did at least have the quality of keeping her looking pretty to the end.
But hark! 2017 dawns with the country waking up to the invigorating task of shaking off the largest stupefying presence of them all, the EU. Is Theresa May up to pulling the sword from the stone? There are some encouraging signs. Some of the old school are now leaving. At the time of writing our EU ambassador, Ivan Rogers, has resigned whilst penning a note to his staff urging them to carry on his fight, so no professionalism there then but it is what we have come to expect from such people.
The real test though is about to come. It must by now be clear on either side of the Brexit debate that it will be a complete waste of time attempting to hammer out some kind of deal with Brussels et al. Just like our leaders of the last 27 years they are masters of the art of can kicking and obfuscation. Come March when May exercises Article 50 we must say to the 27 remain countries: “We are leaving with no pre-conditions. If in the next two years you wish to negotiate on certain elements of interest to you our door is, of course, open.”
Will May have the courage to wake us from our slumber? I hope so. It is time to move from risk off to risk-on.