The pitfalls of hiring yes-men in government

Chris Grayling MP. (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Chris Grayling MP. (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

MITCH BENN says loyalty is great, but it's rarely an indicator of intelligence – and that's the government's problem.

It's good to know that as the country sinks into ever more viscous mires of torpor and despair, there's still someone out there who can be guaranteed to raise a smile. I refer of course to the honourable Chris Grayling MP.

His failure to secure the post of chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee – in other words, managing not to get a job he'd essentially already been given – is perhaps the most heroically on-brand thing a British politician has done since Margaret Thatcher stole the milk.

While Grayling had been, for reasons we'll allude to in a moment, Number 10's pick for the position, the committee chose instead to exercise due process (ie. do their jobs) and vote instead to elect Julian Lewis, a man who could scarcely be described as a liberal bedwetter on any issue but who has nonetheless been rewarded for his diligence by having the Conservative whip withdrawn.

Because in Boris Johnson's Westminster, as in Donald Trump's White House, unquestioning loyalty to the leader is the only virtue. And as most people – but unfortunately, neither of the two leaders in question – can see, that way disaster lies.

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If your sole criterion for deciding whom to elevate to positions of responsibility within your organisation is their personal loyalty to you, you are not, nor can you ever be, to coin a phrase, hiring the best people.

It's easy to see why this has become a priority – both the Trump and Johnson administrations and their respective fanbases are pursuing agendas which are increasingly unmoored from reality, and as such are hard to back up with things like facts and reason.

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An appeal to political tribal loyalty, on the other hand, can be deployed to justify literally anything, and so the tribalisation of politics has been enthusiastically pursued on both sides of the Atlantic since our respective 2016 electoral upsets.

And thus we see the rise of the obsequiocracy. Since questions are toxic (because they require answers, and answers are hard), only those who never ask them may be allowed to advance.

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And as I said, while being surrounded by sycophants is no doubt a comfort to a leader (especially, say, purely hypothetically, a brittle narcissistic leader haunted by a deep-seated awareness of his own inadequacy and prone to grotesque acts of compensatory self-aggrandisement) it's scarcely a basis for good government.

You see, loyalty is a positive thing, in many ways and in many circumstances. It's a good thing in a romantic partner. It's to be encouraged between retailers and their customers. It's an excellent virtue in a dog.

But the thing about loyalty – especially devout, unquestioning loyalty such as is prized by our current leaders – is that it's scarcely an indicator of intelligence. Quite the reverse, in fact.

The more (one hesitates to use such a reductive term as 'clever', so let's go with...) 'intellectually curious' one is, the less likely one is to be able to switch off one's critical faculties and believe unswervingly and wholeheartedly (although one might be able to pretend to, of which more in a moment).

Similarly, the more, shall we say 'intellectually incurious' one were, the easier one would find it to get on board with an agenda, casting aside doubt and uncertainty.

As such, if individuals are to be promoted purely on the basis of their (apparent) loyalty to you, then there are two sorts of people this will favour: those who simply lack the capacity for analytical thought, such as might occasion them to experience doubt, and those who see right through you but who are clever enough to feign unswerving loyalty while awaiting their moment to strike.

In other words, your selected ministers and appointees will fall into two categories: the ones who are not competent enough to do their jobs, and the ones who are actively plotting your downfall.

You've surrounded yourself with echoing empty vessels on one hand and Brutuses-in-waiting on the other.

I'm sure we can all think of plenty of examples of the first type in our administration (and, in fairness, in all our political organisations just now). I shouldn't imagine that there's anyone matching the second definition in our current cabinet. I think the British people have had enough of that sort of speculation.

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