Monday, 9 September 2019

Genius or simply lucky fool?

There is a natural human tendency to believe in ‘agency’; that when things happen, it’s a result of actions taken by people.  It isn’t always true, though; sometimes things happen as a result of a whole host of interacting causes and actions, and there’s often a large element of sheer luck involved.  Being in the right place at the right time is under-rated; but still we tend to prefer the simple explanation that attributes success to an individual.  One classic example is the oft-repeated claim that knife crime in London reduced when Boris Johnson was mayor.  In factual terms, it isn’t quite as clear-cut as that, but even if we accept that the statement is true, it doesn’t follow that the relationship between the two was a causal one, even if the chief protagonist regularly asserts it to be so.
We see the same phenomenon in the boardroom of public companies, where performance in one company is demonstrably not a particularly good indicator of performance elsewhere*.  But perhaps the most common example is that seen in the world of the round ball – football managers are regularly hired and sacked on the basis of the results achieved by their teams.  When a manager achieves very good results with one team and very poor results with the next, the logical response would be to consider what other factors might be in play.  But the actual response is to blame the manager and sack him.  Whether he was just lucky the first time, whether he just happened to be a better ‘fit’ with the style and ethos of the team, whether he just had a better bunch of players – all these are disregarded, and the manager carries the can.
As a result of the success of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, Dominic Cummings has been credited with a mystical set of superpowers and has come to be regarded as some sort of strategic and tactical genius.  On the basis of that success, he has been given unprecedented power in Downing Street to exert his control over other departments and to patronise and upbraid MPs and ministers, often, apparently, in colourful language.  This seems to be tolerated and even encouraged by the PM.  It appears that the ‘masterstrokes’ of the government so far – proroguing parliament, expelling 21 Tory MPs, backing the PM into a corner from which there seems at the moment to be no obvious escape route, threatening that the PM will disregard the law – all emanate from the ‘mastermind’ behind the PM.  But what if he’s not the mastermind as which he has been painted?  What if, in 2016, he was just lucky – he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of factors which were moving in a particular direction anyway?  Is it even possible that the leave majority would have been greater but for his involvement?  The problem with these questions is twofold – firstly that we don’t have the data to answer them, and secondly that too many people aren’t even asking them.
The assumption that appointing a magic manager will turn around the fortunes of a poor-performing football club is not an assumption which is generally verified by the facts.  There’s no obvious reason to suppose that politics, in this regard, is much different.  Cummings is turning out to be about as helpful to Johnson as Rasputin was to Tsar Nicholas.  He just hasn’t been found out yet.
*There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.  It turns out, for example, that Boris Johnson’s performance as Foreign Secretary was an incredibly good indicator of his likely performance as Prime Minister.

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