Book in the news: politics in the age of the chancer

Cover of BluffocracyBluffocracy
James Ball and Andrew Greenway
Biteback Publishing (£10)
(Buy at Amazon)

Bluffing may help get you through a dinner party conversation on a topic about which you know little, but could it also be the cause of many of our present social and political problems? James Ball and Andrew Greenway think it is.

In their book, Bluffocracy, they argue that our political system, the civil service and the media generally unduly reward confident generalists who can think on their feet, as opposed to more experienced and knowledgeable specialists. They note that a disproportionate number of political leaders have studied PPE at Oxford, the bluffer’s degree par excellence (as the authors should know, being graduates in the subject themselves).

In the authors’ view, this has fostered short-term thinking in political debate and policymaking, exemplified by David Cameron’s notorious “essay crisis” approach to governing – bluffing his way through potential problems with last-minute swotting.

The work is more an extended essay than a book, but Ball and Greenway write in a punchy style, laced with dollops of cynicism, that gets their argument across with the minimum of fuss. They also provide an invaluable peek behind the curtains of power, whether it be Oxford tutorials, the fast-stream of the civil service or the corridors of Westminster.

It is impossible to read their tract without being outraged that specialist civil servants, who may have devoted their lives to becoming knowledgeable in one area, are consistently regarded as second-class when compared with their generalist peers. Even if you don’t agree with everything the authors have to say, their book is certainly worth reading regardless.

Still, in a world where political leaders need to be able to deal with a wide range of problems in a limited amount of time, being able to weigh up the evidence quickly and make snap judgements isn’t necessarily a bad skill to have. Even a single government department will cover so many different areas it is impossible to find someone with expertise in all of them, so you might as well employ a clever generalist.

Indeed, you could argue that if Angela Merkel were more of a bluffing generalist than the careful plodder she is, Europe might have steered clear of many of its current troubles.