The Peter principle states that employees are promoted to the point where they become incompetent – and there they remain, doing a crap job. What this axiom expresses is our general credulousness, bordering on collective delusion, when it comes to hierarchies. Try as we might to grasp that a more senior position in an organisation doesn’t ipso facto mean a more capable incumbent, we cannot quite rid ourselves of the belief that because, say, someone has the job title “foreign secretary”, he must be a world-bestriding statesman of great acumen.
The problem is that, while an individual may be good at job X, that doesn’t mean he’s fitted for position Y and, by the time he reaches management role Z, he may well be floundering hopelessly out of his depth. In most organisations, the Peter principle is vitiated by the well-known method of “managing upwards”, whereby efficient subordinates learn how to bolster and even control their inadequate superiors. British government ministers, who often have little or no experience of the portfolio they are given, have long been managed by their ostensible subordinates: the permanent undersecretary in whichever ministry it is.
It would be comforting to know that, in the current Middle East imbroglio, British foreign policy is not being formulated by the flamboyant white rose William Hague, but by some colourless wonk called Simon Fraser, who, apart from a brief sojourn in the Department for Business and Blah-Blah and a few years as Mandy’s Brussels bag carrier, has been steeped in the FCO’s arcane ways since the late 1970s. Comforting but, sadly, it is almost certainly not the case, because the political hierarchy is one of the few in Britain to which the Peter principle doesn’t uniformly apply.
Willie H is instructive in all this. He was a political wunderkind who addressed the Tory party conference in 1977, aged 16, with a ringing declamation about demography – “Half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time,” and so on – and then went on to occupy the usual “coming man” positions in Oxford student politics. After his obligatory First in PPE and an MBA, Hague worked for McKinsey before entering parliament as the youngest Tory MP in 1987. Haguey-Waguey was in the government by 1990 and was minister of state for social security and disabled people by 1994. So far, so meteoric – but then comes the real zenith of his career: in 1995, Billy Fizz (as he was called by the publicans around Rotherham to whom he delivered soft drinks in the 1970s) was appointed Welsh secretary.
There! I rest my case. Is there any coupling of job title and name more apposite than this: “William Hague, Welsh secretary”?
It doesn’t so much trip off the tongue as deliquesce there, leaving a blissful residue of suitability. Every time I say, “William Hague, Welsh secretary”, I get a warm, contented feeling.
A recent psychiatric study has confirmed that saying “William Hague, Welsh secretary” over and over again like a mantra significantly ameliorates depression (the control, if you’re interested, was reciting “William Hague, Scottish secretary”). It was a happy time for Oor Wullie, too. He met and married the charming Ffion and, unlike most married couples, they still adore ffucking each other to this day.
But all good things must pass and, following the 1997 election defeat, the Tories stupidly ignored their well-tried method of avoiding the Peter principle (which is to have leaders only from a select caste, schooled from birth to assume the role) and tore Hague from his happy valleys with predictably dire results. I’ve no wish to dwell on this disaster and I think we’re all relieved that, after the interregnum of a couple of caretakers, a proper Etonian was installed in 2005; not only an Etonian, but one who had also studied at the Tony Blair Finishing School for Liberal Interventionists. The only sadness is that Cameron appointed poor Hague to be his foreign secretary.
At times like these, unless we’re all to go crazy, we need a foreign secretary who’s as steady as a rock, a colossus who bestrides the petty animosities of warring tribes. If we look back to the last time we were caught up in a situation like this, the name “Jack Straw” has just such a resonance – it’s no wonder things turned out so well.