The fact that our political class has no real grounding or experience in the objective world is compensated for, in their eyes, by theoretical and ideological models of how the world should be. With an intellectual formation (if you can call it that) in such subjects as political theory, international humanitarian law, economics and business studies, and surrounded by “advisers” who have never done an honest day’s work in their life, it’s not surprising that the political class constructs abstract and normative worlds for itself where certain things ought to happen, and therefore by definition do. Because modern politics is so detached from real life, and in general cannot understand what it is seeing, it retreats behind a wall of normative theory, and prefers “measurements” which measure, inevitably, what can be measured, to actual pragmatic knowledge.


Part of modern democratic systems is the organisation of regular elections. In the depoliticised politics that we have enjoyed for the last generation, politics in many western countries has degenerated into nothing much but elections, generating a massive industry of consultants, psephologists, analysts, stylists and hairdressers. Politics these days is about refining and testing-out messages and slogans to attract the largest number of voters in areas you think you can win, such that you wind up in control of the nation’s parliament, perhaps in collaboration with other parties, or in the Presidential palace. This gives you access to power, status and privilege, as well as providing you with marketable experience which you can draw on later when you want to make Real Money.

It follows from this that modern politicians should always be looking fixedly to the next election. When they are temporarily unpopular, they need to do, or more likely promise, things that will increase their popularity. When they are popular, they need to exploit that popularity to call an election they think they can win. And yet we have recently seen two politicians with no need to go the country just decide to do so, although in each case the auguries are bad. So something odd is going on here, and it isn’t explicable through the desiccated management jargon that infests modern politics. If, after all, modern politics has been drained of almost all content, if it’s very largely different factions of The Party fighting each other for status and power, whilst sharing broadly the same ideology, then this behaviour is perverse, to put it mildly.

Curiously, the explanation lies the increasing “professionalisation” of politics, bearing in mind that the word itself has two different, and almost completely opposed, meanings. In a bizarre twist, it’s probably fair to say that most of today’s leading politicians are amateurs, because they are professional politicians. Now that may sound weird at first sight, so let’s unpack these notions.

“Profession” in English refers to a career specialisation which begins with university or similar studies, moves through professional training and examinations, and then culminates in membership of professional associations from which you can be expelled for “unprofessional” conduct. The assumption is that if you go to a “professional”—a doctor, lawyer, accountant, whatever—you will receive a certain minimum standard of service, with certain inbuilt ethical guarantees, and that you can complain to some professional body if you don’t receive what you expect. Now, that doesn’t always work perfectly in practice, but the theory is clear enough, and marks off certain people in various societies as “professionals.” In many non-Anglo-Saxon societies, for example,“engineer” is not a man who turns a spanner, but a professional status. If you see Dip Ing against somebody’s name in Germany and some other countries, it means that person has a Master’s-level degree in an Engineering subject.

Yet it’s a curiosity of politics that it doesn’t demand any qualifications or training: it demands nothing except ambition. Tautologically, a politician is somewhat who wanted to become a politician and has succeeded. And yet the responsibilities that some politicians seek, not to mention the potential damage they can do, are massively greater than for, say, an engineer who has to build a bridge that won’t fall down. Unsurprisingly, there are no examinations to become a politician, no set of agreed competences, no objective way of deciding whether people are good or bad at the job. Most political candidates are selected by national or local parties, according to the political system, often on the basis of favouritism, and often according to criteria (such as the current tendency to demand equal numbers of men and women) which explicitly exclude competence as a factor. Once elected, a politician’s career depends on chance as much as anything else: having the right profile (or not having the wrong profile) may count for a lot. All political parties are internal coalitions to some extent, so being a protégé of an important figure in the party may be enough to get you a job. Entirely incompetent people may survive as Ministers or even Heads of Government, because there is no agreement on who to replace them with, or because they are too popular within the party to get rid of.

In the past, ironically, these problems were partly managed because the system itself was an essentially amateur one. We recall that “amateur” originally meant have an affection for a subject which was not your primary interest or profession (sic.) Thus, professional politicians in the modern sense were rare, and national politics was something that people would try their hand at after doing other things. Politicians of the twentieth century often had their origins as journalists, civil servants, teachers or lecturers, lawyers, small businessmen or independent professionals. In many cases, they would continue to work in these areas when they were elected, only giving them up when they became Ministers. In those days, being a politician meant having a taste for politics, enjoying the cut and thrust of political life and, in most cases, having a political cause or causes that you wanted to advance. In most countries also, lip service (if nothing more) was paid to issues of ethics and propriety, and politicians could be forced to resign in the case of major scandals.

And politics itself was a mini-career. You might start as an elected local politician, giving up one or two nights a week from your day-job. When you became known, you might decide to run for a full-time local position, or even a parliamentary seat. After a few years in parliament you might be singled out as an unpaid parliamentary aide, and, if your party was in government, possibly for a junior ministerial job. To be elected party leader, and putative Prime Minister or candidate for President, you generally had to have at least some experience as a Minister. In some countries (France is a good example) it was possible to remain Mayor of a small town while still being a Minister or even President, which had the effect of keeping your nose fairly close to the concerns of ordinary people.

All that has changed now, in nearly every western country. Ironically, our politicians are now “professional,” not in the sense of having the professional skills of politicians (which we’ll come to in a second) but just in the sense of never having done anything else. A typical European politician of today has perhaps a degree in Politics from an elite university, a Master’s in Human Rights Law from another elite university in another country, a couple of prestigious internships with institutions or think-tanks, a job as a parliamentary researcher, a job in a think-tank, a job in the party apparatus, a job as a ministerial adviser and then, perhaps, in their mid-to-late 30s, a chance at parliamentary seat. They will know a great deal about how to make a good career, who to suck up to, and how to please important people. They will have effectively zero relevant experience as public servants.

This is important, because the skills needed to succeed in politics today have very little to do with the skills needed to be a good politician. That may sound odd, so let’s set out the differences. Traditionally, politicians seeking high office had to be fairly robust, managing on little sleep, largely foregoing real vacations, ready to give up evenings and weekends, able to absorb insults and invective without worrying about it. They had to be able to think on their feet, deal with an unscrupulous media, master detailed briefs quickly and sound at least half-way intelligent at seven in the morning or at midnight. As they advanced, they needed a sense of what their parliament and their public would accept, how to present themselves to the media, and how to retain the support of their colleagues. At a high level, they needed to be able to distinguish between causes that were hopeless, and causes worth fighting for.

Modern politicians are generally better educated (though not necessarily more intelligent) than those of previous generations, but they are not necessarily educated in the right things. It’s more important to have gone to the right University, and studied the right subject, than it is to know anything about anything. Their skills are those of survival and advancement inside an organisation, defined in the widest sense not just as a political party, but also outside bodies with contacts and influence; and parts of the media and NGO world. With the end of mass political parties, the end of the need to read and understand the views of the electorate, the end of the influence of outside actors such as trades unions, the end of fundamental political differences between parties and the increasing homogenisation of the political class itself, it is the skills of advancement in an organisation that count. Belonging to the right faction, attaching yourself to rising stars, having the right opinions at a given moment: these are the skills to cultivate.

Political parties today resemble large private companies or banks, or indeed the political parties in classic one-party states. It’s a curiosity of history that one-party states worked quite well in Africa (where they were a way of resolving ethnic tensions in a safe environment) and they worked quite well in Communist states, where the leading role of the Party was accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But the transition from a one-party state to a multi-party electoral system, assumed by the West to be painless and rapid, was in fact traumatic everywhere, because it required skills that the politicians involved simply did not have. In Bosnia, for example, the precipitate rush to popular elections resulted in parties being constructed on ethnic lines (how else could you organise in the time available?) and a competition between these parties to be the most radical and to characterise the others as traitors (how else to you get elected?) The result was a parliament in which nobody really wanted war, but in which the most basic practical skills of coalition-forming and compromise required in a democracy were completely absent, because they had never been developed.

Modern western political parties share some of those characteristics to a surprising degree. They are, and accept themselves to be, elitist. They know what people need and what they should want, they mix all the time with journalists, pundits, intellectuals, and influential private sector figures who share their views, and they deal every day with politicians from other countries and officials of international organisations whose opinions are very similar to theirs. They regard the people themselves with contempt, and see election campaigns as about selling a product to the unwashed masses and destroying the image of their opponents, not actually seeking to persuade. They are obviously right, after all, it’s the fault of the people if they don’t realise it. And so, as I write this, demonstrations are continuing by the major parties in France that form part of the established system, against the “extreme Right,” which is to say the parties for which more than a third of French people actually voted on 9 June. Deliberately antagonising and smearing a third of the electorate in a democracy is not only unacceptable behaviour, it’s also extremely amateurish (sic) and stupid. But the belief that you can insult your way to power is now deeply ingrained in western political parties.

Almost by definition, such people are unprepared for the responsibility of running a Ministry, let alone a country. They have not done the kind of job, in politics, in business, in the media, even in academia, where they have to take responsibility for things. They do not know how to manage, and so they practice “management,” as ticking boxes and reciting slogans is now known. Unfamiliar with the need to engage with detail, they are obsessed with image and presentation, and view national politics basically as a continuation of the politics of NGOs and party organisations (some would add, of university politics as well.)

Ironically, their very ignorance of the outside world and the lives of ordinary people is one reason why they are reluctant to take expert advice, especially on difficult and complex issues. They have powerful but brittle egos, and little or no real-world experience to use as a basis. Knowing how to get information you can use from others and evaluate it is a skill in itself, and it’s not taught, and in my experience hardly ever recognised. Much better, or at least easier, to fall back on a group of “personal advisers” who owe their careers to you and who will tell you what you want to hear. With inexperience and lack of knowledge goes arrogance. There’s a pervasive belief among such people that they are better and more intelligent than their (genuinely) professional advisers, whom they often dismiss as conservative or insufficiently imaginative. (I return to this point at greater length below.) In the end, their prospects are determined less by how they appear in parliament or to the people, but how good their media image is, and how far they have advanced in the favours of those who run the party. So their policies are set accordingly.

It follows, finally, that this generation of politicians is more distant conceptually, financially, even geographically from the voters than ever before. By contrast, they are very close to those who move in other elite circles, and may be more at home in other countries than their own. Public opinion scarcely matters in such circumstances: the programmes of most major political parties now resemble each other closely: where are disaffected voters going to go? And if they stay at home, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

All of this is containable so long as politics is just about routine issues; who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, what to say on Breakfast TV. But the world has other ideas, and the succession of crises over the last five years have begun to expose the problems you get when you expect children to do the work of adults. Because that is where we are, and there is no sign that life is going to get any easier or less complex in the years to come.

Consider a simple example. During Covid, western publics, and for that matter western elites, were stunned to discover that simple medicines were no longer made in their countries, and had to be imported. (Nobody had noticed this before.) Shelves in pharmacies were empty because of supply chain problems. Now for our current generation of politicians and their “advisers,” this was a presentational problem. We are being criticised, what do we do about it? The answer, of course, is a presentational one as well: the government is planning tax incentives for pharmaceutical companies to make the drugs at home, or at least nearer by. Problem solved. Oh, wait, you still don’t have any drugs. And here comes an expert from the Health Ministry to tell you that, even if you could build and open a factory and recruit qualified staff, the precursor materials for the drugs are made elsewhere, also, so their supply can’t be guaranteed. So you put your fingers in your ears at that point, because it’s just too complicated.

Our present rulers are psychologically unfitted to deal with difficult and intractable problems, because nothing in their life has prepared them for doing so. It’s not that they are necessarily all born rich, though some of them are, it’s that they have never really had to struggle for anything. You don’t get former coal miners or agricultural labourers or shopkeepers in politics now. They are products for the most part of elite schools and elite universities, they make contact with other members of the future elite, they slide effortlessly into a prestigious internship arranged by contacts, they meet people from the own background and whom they may know personally, eat, holiday and sleep with, their nascent political careers are assisted by contacts in politics and elsewhere, their political activities are excitedly covered by friends and acquaintances in the media, to whom they are able to offer inside information and even the chance of a job in return.

And then, of course, they run into a problem which cannot be resolved by making the right phone call or having lunch with the right person. They find that somebody is telling they can’t have something they want, like Ukraine. The result is an epic temper tantrum, the anger and revolt of the privileged who have never been denied anything before, in the face of the harsh father, in this case Putin, telling them they can’t have what they want for Christmas, or the seat on the Board they had so coveted.

The fact that our political class has no real grounding or experience in the objective world is compensated for, in their eyes, by theoretical and ideological models of how the world should be. With an intellectual formation (if you can call it that) in such subjects as political theory, international humanitarian law, economics and business studies, and surrounded by “advisers” who have never done an honest day’s work in their life, it’s not surprising that the political class constructs abstract and normative worlds for itself where certain things ought to happen, and therefore by definition do. This here theory what I learned in Business School says that if we do X then inflation will fall. So it must be falling. If you can’t see that you must be stupid. Modern politics, including even communication and the management of political campaigns, consists very largely of the attempt to apply theoretical and normative models to real life, and then to blame the failure of the ideas on those implementing them, not on the stupidity of those ideas in the first place. Because modern politics is so detached from real life, and in general cannot understand what it is seeing, it retreats behind a wall of normative theory, and prefers “measurements” which measure, inevitably, what can be measured, to actual pragmatic knowledge.

This normative, theoretical approach so common in modern politics has the effect of making certain groups powerful and others weak. Powerful groups and individuals often come from outside government, promising magical answers, and above all presenting the problems and the putative solutions in the fashionable normative and ideological vocabulary of the day. Crudely, if an ambulance service is having problems in getting to patients fast enough, and this is causing political problems, a traditional approach would be to look at things like staff shortages, availability of ambulances, procedures for handling calls etc. But this approach is likely to reveal that the government needs to put more effort into recruiting, training and running the service, after which the problems will be at least partially resolved. But such an outcome (unless the problem can be blamed on an immediately past government) implies accepting criticism and taking blame, which politicians don’t like doing. So an outside firm of consultants will be paid the combined salary of a significant number of paramedics to produce a report, suggesting that targets be set for response to emergency calls, and that Chief Executives be “held responsible” for meeting those targets, and offered financial incentives to meet them. Problem solved, unless of course you need an ambulance. And eventually, inevitably, we are now finding that there are problems in the world that cannot be dealt with by performance measurement and Powerpoint presentations.

By contrast, of course, the position of professionals who have worked all their lives in government becomes weaker, since they do not offer instant solutions, but rather set out problems in their genuine complexity. In turn, as they see their analyses and advice ignored, in favour of fatuous outsiders with no understanding or experience, they become discouraged and the best people leave. At least as long ago as the Blair years in the UK, soon after the millennium, it was common for people in the public service in Britain working at levels I could never aspire to say things privately like “I think most of us have just given up.” What this meant was that there was no point any more in fighting battles with the reams of “advisers” who by then had started to infest Whitehall. If the only criterion for giving advice successfully was to know “what Tony wants,” then why not do that, and then try to contain the damage as far as possible? And indeed, if you are ambitious, why not make a career for yourself as the person who tells Ministers what they want to hear?

Here, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how unlikely and precarious is the very existence of a politically-neutral public service. After all, rulers traditionally selected close advisers personally, and ambitious (but not necessarily able) figures would seek government posts for the financial advantages they could gain from them. Women would seek influence in more indirect ways. Such personalised, market-based, transactional methods of conducting government are traditional throughout history, and are still to be found in many parts of Africa today, for example. What forced change in almost all cases was the fact that these systems typically don’t serve the interests of the country very well, and the rise to prominence of forces (notably the professional middle class) who saw their interests and the interests of the country as linked. Thus, the British after the disastrous Crimean War, the Germans after the founding of the Second Reich in 1870, the French after the definitive installation of the Republic in 1871, or even the Japanese after the shock of the first contact with the West, recognised that a modern state could no longer depend on patronage and favouritism, but required a professional cadre of experts, who would spend their careers advising successive governments, and putting their policies into practice.

But that’s only half of it. Why should an intelligent and ambitious young person have opted for a modest career behind the scenes, when the possibility of wealth and power beckoned if they were prepared to take a more public role? In each of the cases above, social factors were at work. In Britain and later in Germany, it was the deep seriousness of the upper-middle class view of the world and the nation, buttressed by a fundamentally religious upbringing focused on duty. In France, it was the desperate need to build institutions to defend Republican principles. themselves held with a quasi-religious fervour, in Japan it was the sick realisation that without rapid modernisation and the organisation of an effective state, they would soon become an effective colony, like China. Even in the Soviet Union and later in Warsaw Pact states, some of the same seriousness and dedication seems to have been present.

In retrospect, we can see that the high-water mark of this kind of thinking was in the generation after the Second World War, which had itself been won largely through the activities of capable, professional states. It’s also clear that little remains now of the structures built then, and almost nothing of the attitude of serious and dedicated professionalism that underlay them. If some states (Japan for example) have been partly preserved from the worst of these effects, most western state apparatuses have now decayed to the point where reforming them, let alone saving them, seems impossible. Indeed, future historians, if there are any, may identify the period from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century as the “good government era,” a historical anomaly and a rich field of research for future PhD students. The problem, of course, is that the western world does not face the problems of the eighteenth century, but of the twenty-first, and the need for strong and capable states is as great as ever.

But why should this decline be so? The standard answer is the deliberate attempt by right-wing forces to attack the very concept of the state, beginning in the US and spreading to other countries. This isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete, and doesn’t explain why governments of the Notional Left should have been equally keen to personalise the process of government, and hand over money and influence to outsiders. Part of the generic explanation, I have referred to earlier: the last generation or two has seen the rise of a kind of a nomenklatura, socially and educationally homogeneous, largely thinking the same thoughts, and interacting socially and professionally all the time. If you are a young Minister, then bringing a friend from University, or someone you used to work with at an NGO, or a journalist friend of your partner into your personal staff seems obvious. You are likely to work much better with them than with a professional who has been in the job thirty years and seen Ministers come and go. (Macron’s case is particularly significant here: most of his close advisers are young, inexperienced, and from the same background. But then at least part of the time Macron thinks he’s running a Silicon Valley startup.) This pervasive homogeneity was simply not present before: attempts by right-wing governments in Britain to bring “independent businessmen” into government were disastrous failures. The clash of cultures was too great.

But there are other reasons as well. On the Left, there has always been suspicion of the State (and not unreasonably given the historical use of the State against left-wing parties.) Marx’s view of the State as the “executive committee of the bourgeoisie” was not wholly unfair in 1848, and, together with his idea that the state would not be necessary in a classless society, continues to influence elite leftist and progressive thinking even now. In the days when there were mass political parties of the Left, this was less of a problem, since the poor have always appreciated and demanded the services and protection of the State. But the Left has been captured by boutique political parties led by the comfortably off, who can contract out of the problems which the State existed to solve. So “crime” has become a fascinating subject for ideological debate on how the State should do less, not the grim reality it is for those who live in run-down areas controlled by drug gangs, and want the State to do more. .

The most recent expression of this dislike of the State, which seems to be the case across the political spectrum, is the so-called “Deep State” phenomenon. As such, it is incoherent and described in numerous contradictory ways, but it takes its origin from the fact that if States are to be effective, they have to contain career professionals who know what they are doing, and have been doing it for a long time. A moment’s thought makes it clear that a modern society cannot operate in any other way. Long-term experts on agriculture, or diseases, or education, or military operations, have seen it before, and have far more expertise than elected politicians will ever have. This does not mean they take decisions, but it means that in a properly-run state, political decisions should take their advice into account. That said, the United States, with its politicisation and its open warfare between interest groups in government, has created a problem of this type which is probably insoluble, because everything is based on competition and conflict, and the kind of cooperation between permanent experts and elected politicians which makes a state work effectively seems to be impossible there, these days at least.

The final strand of anti-State feeling is the anti-elitist argument: public servants are drawn from too narrow a background, have too much influence, more outsiders need to be brought in. This argument had become almost received wisdom in Britain by the late 1970s. The TV comedy series Yes Minister, an affectionate parody of some aspects of the public service of the fifties and sixties, drawing heavily on the Diaries of Richard Crossman, a Minister in the 1964-70 Labour government, was actually taken, not least by Mrs Thatcher, to be a documentary. Everyone agreed that we should get rid of senior officials with degrees in History and Classics, bring in talented outsiders, give the Prime Minister a large and powerful personal staff, give Ministers large and powerful personal staffs as well, and shake up the whole fuddy-duddy structure so that it was “modern.” And as the decades advanced, the response to an increasingly complex and difficult world was to reduce the number of organisations and people available to deal with it.

Well, the wreckage you see around you, if you live in the UK or a country influenced by its experience, is the result of all of these clever ideas. The de-skilling of government leads not only to the rise of incapable politicians, it leads also to the decay of the structures that support them, and help them make good decisions The kind of bizarre decisions that have been made in recent years, of which calling unnecessary elections with potentially disastrous consequences is only the latest, would not have been taken in structures that functioned properly.

But there are no major political forces in the western world today who support the idea of a strong and powerful state, which is what most people actually want. (It’s notorious that the most anti-State militants you can imagine always want the State to do things for them, and quickly.) So how, in such circumstances, can you ever recruit good and dedicated people to do the necessary but unglamorous plumbing and maintenance that keeps society actually functioning? Why make a career in the public sector at all? Or why not trade your experience after a while for a better-paid job elsewhere? Why give unbiased expert advice to people who don’t want it, when you can help your career by telling politicians what they want to hear?

It took generations, under very special political conditions, for various countries in the world to build capable States, but only a few decades to destroy them. It is possible, of course, that under the stresses of new infectious diseases, the after-effects of Ukraine and Gaza, the threat of organised crime, the results of global warming and mass migration, there will be another moment of collective enlightenment and reforming energy as there was in the nineteenth century. But I wouldn’t count on it.