Richard North, 29/01/2018  

The most remarkable elements of the latest round of Tory sleaze is that the three targets for the Sunday Times/Channel 4 Dispatches "sting" actually believe they have any knowledge on Brexit worth selling.

Of the three, Andrew Lansley, Peter Lilley and Andrew Mitchell, it is certainly the case from my own personal experience that Lilley is the epitome of ignorance when it comes to EU matters. He manages to bundle Tory myths with his own brand of arrogance to deliver the usual rag-bag of misinformation which typifies the Tory right and thereby ensures that they have nothing intelligent to say on the subject – along with most other Tories and MPs in general.

What the Sunday Times also shows up though, in a separate article, is that Brexit, for a small but select group of MPs and peers, has become a significant business opportunity.

The newspaper, however, is only able to identify 20 politicians who, from the registers or financial interests, are making money out of Brexit. Nevertheless, according to a "well-placed Conservative source", many of the ex-ministers who have had any role in the Brexit process are now "guns for hire". They apparently consider Brexit to be a live and pressing issue, on which they can provide their "expert" advice.

Yet, from any rational perspective, probably the last person one would want to go to for advice on Brexit is a former UK minister, while backbench MPs are constantly demonstrating to the world at large how little they know of the subject. Furthermore, since so much of the information about Brexit comes from Brussels, Westminster is not even at the centre of the information hub.

Another reason why MPs might be singularly poor value is the tendency of Mrs May to work within a very limited circle of confidants. Those outside the circle are no better informed that the rest of us, even if they are prominent members of the Westminster bubble, with full access to the very latest in court gossip.

On the other hand, it is an odd reflection of human nature that those in the market for consultancy are not necessarily seeking information. As often, they may simply be looking for confirmation of existing prejudices, or endorsement of a course of action that has already been decided upon.

I remember a client once who engaged me to do a series of hygiene surveys of a group of premises – and was most put out when I found things wrong. He was actually looking for affirmation that the premises met all current standards.

In terms of Brexit, the EU itself is rather spoiling the game by its commitment to a high level of transparency, to the extent that we can gain a great deal of knowledge of EU intentions from nothing more than reference to Europa website. One needs little in the way of skills other than the ability to navigate this complex site, and gather up the information available.

One also needs an appreciation of how the EU works – an understanding of its institutional DNA - so that one is able to come to terms with its driving forces and its limitations. And that is where most UK politicians will let you down. Most are unable even to understand their own institutions and governance, and I have yet to find a single MP who can display a comprehensive knowledge of the EU's "biological" architecture.

That much also goes for the media and, to a very great extent, the myriad of self-important think tanks, many all of whom are vying for lucrative consultancy fees (or in some cases, dispensing them). Invariably, though, the currency is not so much hard cash as our old friend prestige. And, as with my client who wanted to hear from me how well-ordered his operations were, the greatest kudos goes to those who tell their "clients" what that want to hear.

In some cases the intermediate client is the media and a great many think tanks gain their influence by providing a source of cheap copy to newspapers, on a quid pro quo basis. They provide the stories in return for the publicity – often in pursuit of general aims in which Brexit is only a tangential issue.

Another powerful driver in the game is the need to support the hierarchical structure of politics. If a leading figure, such as the prime minister, makes a stupid error – such as calling the interim arrangements for Brexit an "implementation period" – the machine will immediately swing into action to normalise the error and turn it into fact.

This we have seen to a very great extent with the consistent attempts to "prove" that an EU-UK trade agreement can be settled within a two-year period – or, in the case of Mr Lilley, within ten minutes.

What we will very rarely see is evidence-led analysis. Mostly, the required answer is set out first, whence the interns and office juniors are set to digging up suitable factoids to support the case already made.

Research, in this context, is regarded as starter-grade activity, suitable only for those at the bottom of the political food chain, all of whom are looking for better jobs. There is no career path in research in UK politics, and contradicting received wisdom (especially if it is wrong) is not a career-enhancing move.

Only thus could you find, as with Andrew Lansley, a putative consultant claiming that the prime minister came to his wedding as a suitable addition to his cv, to justify a daily fee of €5,000 – not an awful lot less than the annual state pension.

Interestingly, free information is often poorly valued. This blog, for instance, can offer a level of analysis way beyond the capability of many well-rewarded consultants – which is one reason why so may are hostile to it. It rather spoils the game for the money-grubbers. Small wonder, Lilley found it necessary to denigrate my work.

However, once one appreciates that the consultancy game is not about knowledge and information, but power and prestige, a lot of what we're seeing becomes clearer. Speaking the truth to power is a whole lot less rewarding than telling "power" what it wants to hear, and that is what so many consultants are prepared to do.

Sadly, in a game as nebulous as politics, ignorance can have a quality of its own. As long as solidarity can be maintained and everybody who matters can be corralled into believing (or, at least, promoting) the agreed line, no one need be inconvenienced by the truth. All it needs is to be able to define the "people who matter" as those who are prepared to subscribe to the received wisdom. By this means, outsiders can be isolated and neutralised.

But that notwithstanding, there is one huge advantage in employing people as ignorant as Lilley. This came to me when writing my books on historical subjects when the author often has near perfect knowledge of past events – something not enjoyed by the actors at the time.

The trick in writing good history, therefore, comes from being able to ascertain what the actors didn't know as much as what they did – correctly assessing their state of ignorance. Inexplicable decisions can often take on a completely different complexion if one realises that certain otherwise key facts were simply not known at the time.

So it is with contemporary decision-making, where we find that even (or especially) top-level politicians such as Mrs May are both extraordinarily ignorant of the basics and prone to fundamental misunderstandings. Unless one is aware of this, and has some knowledge of where the deficiencies lie, it is quite impossible to anticipate the nature of the decisions that will be made.

And this is where people such as Lilley do have the advantage. Their profound ignorance of the issues (and the basics) is often a perfect mirror of the political classes, enabling analysts better able to predict just how bad decisions might be.

After all, if analysts work on the basis that our political masters actually know what they are doing, they are at risk of coming to conclusions that bear no relation to the world of ignorance in which these people reside. And, in that sense, ignorance is an invaluable commodity.

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