Thursday, March 25, 2004

Trust and politics

My continuing study of uncertainty leads me to fear that Charles Kennedy is a victim of the certainty that UK politics demands of party leaders. Victimhood here is a case of having his ‘trustworthiness’ for ‘high office’ brought into question simply because he is outwith the system’s paradigmatic certainties, as if he were an unwelcome third captive complicating the prisoners’ dilemma.

I’m not in any way an apologist for this guy, but this is a trust issue, pure and simple, so I’m involved. Think about this: UK politics demands an absence of uncertainty. It is a two-party affair - a prime minister versus a leader of the opposition. Two leaders – each salaried and each with full administrative, technical and logistic support funded by the tax-payer - locked in the zero-sum adversarial contest that passes for a political process and that (to all intents and purposes) is played out for the benefit of the media reporting it. The space for a third leader is absolute zero – lower than minus 273 degrees on any scale you care to choose. Kennedy therefore represents a destabilizing uncertainty and as such is a threat to the system. (When Michael Howard gets up to speak he has a despatch box in front of him. Kennedy has Denis Skinner.)

Leadership, in any meaningful context, is characterized by two exceptional qualities: firstly by decisiveness (the ability to take decisions is what has marked out star leaders since the history of the world began) and secondly by the ability to delegate. (By delegation here I mean the handing down of leadership authority in a trust transaction and definitely not the delegation of responsibility.) Trust is the cornerstone of leadership.

I don’t know how Kennedy scores on these qualities but what I do know is that whenever decisions are taken strange things happen, systems respond weirdly. By ‘sitting on’ decisions a kind of certainty builds around the decision’s possibilities. Outcomes are discounted or they are given a premium. Either way, the system is in a state of certainty and all outcomes are equally certain.

The instant a decision is taken all bets are off and uncertainty rules inside the system until the next decision is identified and a new certainty can be conjectured around it. Putting off decisions to the last minute increases a leader’s (particularly a politician’s) leverage and (frequently) kudos. The longer he puts it off the longer he remains the centre of attention and the more certainty the system has and the calmer it becomes. This is why politicians (and poor leaders in every walk of life) put off decisions whenever they can for as long as they can. By his very presence Kennedy unsettles this cosy arrangements. Factor in a million tabloid hacks with (tendentious) copy to file and a squillion hours of non-stop TV news to fill and a guy who’s really nothing but an innocent bystander in the UK political game (as currently configured) gets the blame for all sorts of uncertainties the system can’t easily live with. Worse, he gets accused of enjoying a glass of scotch.