Wednesday, April 20, 2011
In praise of mugwumps
I think I stumbled on an important general insight yesterday when I said that most of my written work is done as a non-specialist, an outsider, trying in my writing to tease out some problems I felt about the particular conventional wisdom I was facing in my work.
Heroes generally have heroic aspects – strength, valour. But my two heroes are innocents – Voltaire’s Candide who is increasingly puzzled by the contradiction between the optimistic philosophy of his tutore Dr Pangloss and the viciousness of life he experiences. And the little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who dared to say that the Emperor had no clothes.
And they are my heroes, I have to recognise, because I have always felt a bit puzzled by the certainties of others. Psychologists would doubtless trace this back to my growing up on the class border – living in a mansion (belonging to the Church) in the West End but going to a state school in the East End. Playing the games (rugby, rowing and cricket) of the richer kids – but becoming a young socialist and, later, Labour councillor. And, as a politician, I chose to spend my time in the curious interstices of community groups and street bureaucrats at one level and, as a strategist, with senior bureaucrats at another level. Not for me the world of Party Conferences and ideologues!
By spending time with such different groups (and even trying to bring them together), I realised how deficient our various perceptions were.
And, for 17 years, I tried to reconcile academic work with politics – impossible at the end – but, while in academia, I was ploughing the unfashionable furrow of inter-disciplinary activity (and also trying to bring academics and practitioners together).
In short I have been a full-blown mug-wump (someone on a fence with his mug on one side and wump on other!). Not generally a comfortable position! But I liked the metaphor of a bridge – particularly the Central European joke that, in peacetime, horses shit on them and, in wartime, they are blown up!
From my personal experiences, I developed a theory about politicians and their behaviour by pointing out that they are pulled in four different directions – by their party (or funders in the US case); by their voters (if the system has geographical constituencies); by the government officials who give them the info and advice; and by their own colleagues with whom they spend so much time. Few politicians can put up with the problems of trying to reconcile the very different messages they receive from these 4 worlds and choose to become servants of one of them – hackmen, populists, bureaucrats and ?? respectively.
But I felt that the effective politician is the one who remains open to all the signals – and tries to craft a synthesis.
And I suppose I’ve continued this perspective in my new role of consultant in the last 20 years – both in how I interpret my role and in how I approach the various papers I have written on such various subjects as decentralisation; civil service reform; implementation of the European acquis; training; or capacity development.
Most people write (however unconsciously) as members of a particular group – be it organisational, political or professional. This affects both the language they use – and their perspectives. I have spent time with most groups but don’t belong to any (I recognised in my 2006 paper that it was not unfair to use the word „mercenary” of us) – and can therefore better appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of the specialists.
At last the temperature shows some sign of getting above 6/7 – here in Sofia only 200 kilometres above the Aegean! What is this? God’s vengeance on Greek debt??
Today's painting is by Russi Ganchev whose work is rather mixed. Occasionally a bit pedestrian,an exhibition I saw in 2008 showed some like the above. I know nothing about him except that he was a landscape painter who was born in 1895 and died in 1965