Western democracies have talent problems

Rishi Sunak does politics as if he had just returned from a residential course called How to Do Politics. There’s something rote about hand gestures and speech. There’s something formulaic about tactics: take the right now, now rotate. In a thriving democracy, he would make a good Downing Street chief of staff with a hawk eye for an vacated parliamentary seat.

As such, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom is clearly the best candidate for prime minister in a rigorous field of the Conservative Party. By all means, lament the lack of competition at Westminster as he has risen in recent years. But don’t assume it will be much harder elsewhere. In the United States, the two most senior Democrats are pensioner and his vice president maladroit. The last German election pitted Olaf Scholz against Armin Laschet in a contest that was not to blame. None of Australia’s last six prime ministers have impressed enough to record four years in office. For the second time in a decade, Italy has a sphere named Mario attract a political class in the country lack of stature.

Western democracies have personnel problems. It has been used for centuries. With a good brain and a sensible style, it makes no sense for David Cameron to become Tory leader within five years of entering parliament in 2001. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn weathered a decade-old scandal then the call of the French socialists was the moment of incredible – the servant François Hollande. Take a look around today’s major democracies. Emmanuel Macron, rightly so, would stand out in any white-collar profession. But who else?

If voters were to reject world historical figures in favor of third-placers, we might diagnose all of this as a demand-side problem. But supply is the bigger problem. People who are likely to be liberal or moderate do not participate in politics in appropriate numbers. The reason is intuitive enough. Salary gap with finance, enterprise Law and other graduate careers that have evolved over the past generation. (Consider the haste with which Cameron, by no means a born wretch, made up for lost earnings when he left power.) The Secret Press by John F Kennedy and François Mitterrand. Even if they are so inclined now, a citizen with a phone camera and a Twitter account is not necessary.

The turmoil of the past decade makes all the more sense in this context. Intellectually, it is de rigueur to pin the democratic crisis to structural forces: about the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, about the proliferation of new media. In our view of history, if not economics, my trade has become Marxist to the bone. For all its ostensibly animism, however, the Great Man theory, the tension about individual self-determination, has something to do with it. Perhaps liberalism is running out of great men and women. Or even very good ones.

It’s hard to emphasize the individual without being snobby. Thus, to determine, there is no automatic equation between a person’s academic-professional performance and their usefulness in public life. Harry Truman is a failed tailor. He also adopted Nato and the Marshall Plan, the architect of the second half of the 20th century. Robert McNamara at one point perhaps the best resume in America. He could hardly have been a worse defense minister.

The question is whether, with a sufficiently large sample size, a country can survive by sending its worst people into the private sector. In a sense, democratic capitalism is eroding itself. In allowing private careers with such lavish salaries and privacy, it makes politics a game of a game. The decline of laws and institutions, in turn, threatens the economy. If the Tory Circus annoys you, consider that, on Labour’s team, experience comes from someone who spent a quarter of a century in parliament without leaving much of a mark (Yvette Cooper) and a former failed leadership (Ed Miliband). Autocracies at least allow bureaucrats enough scope for grafting and a preference for peccadillos to retain talent.

The newly published diary of Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, is seen as a highlight for that place. They end up leaving the reader wistful, yes, but for a certain kind of politician. Clever, administratively capable, undoing: Patten wasn’t even a stellar member of a Tory cohort that included a 40-year-old lawyer who took silk (Ken Clarke) and the builder of a commercial fortune (Michael Heseltine). By comparison, England could soon be run by someone trying to put the word “chicken” in a congressional speech as often as possible. The crisis of democracy is the crisis of the restaurant trade and of Heathrow Airport. You just can’t get employees.

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