Opinion: Will you take the ‘Bunker Pledge’?

A recent post on LDV speculated who would be in the new leader’s shadow cabinet. A more interesting question is who will occupy his kitchen cabinet.

Every political leader has one – a group of staff and unpaid advisors acting as an ‘inner circle’. At best, such groups provide leaders with a sounding board and confidential advice from people they can trust. At worst, a bunker mentality develops, with the inner circle isolating the leader and feeding him information selectively.

Ming Campbell was not in the job long enough for this to become a serious problem but all his predecessors, at least as far back as David Steel, eventually retreated into the bunker.

The bunker syndrome has done considerable damage to the party. Isolation – combined with hubris – encourages the leader to inhabit an increasingly delusional universe, which inevitably generates conflict with party members not sharing his alternative reality. Paranoia ensues and the leader reacts by valuing personal loyalty over competence (incidentally, the fundamental failing of the Bush administration).

But the most damaging effect is the risk-averse culture. A good example is the party’s decision to oppose the Iraq War. Few now think this was a bad idea but it was another story in 2002-03. Charles Kennedy was put under huge pressure by many of his closest advisors not to take a high profile on this issue. It is to Kennedy’s credit that he withstood such pressure.

A more tragic example is the environment. The Liberals developed some far-sighted green policies back in the 1970s, providing the Liberal Democrats with a potential thirty-year head start. But successive leaders wasted this advantage, primarily because of excessive caution in the bunker. Now everyone’s jumped on the green bandwagon and it’s difficult to sound distinctive.

The party is at a low ebb and it needs to go for broke, not forever pull its punches and retreat into cautious positions. We can’t afford to be bland. It is therefore imperative that the next leader chooses staff and advisors who will stiffen his resolve rather than cover him with a wet blanket.

One of the main incentives for anyone wishing to join a leader’s kitchen cabinet is the prospect of a peerage, which is highly corrosive because it encourages a risk-averse culture. No-one in the inner circle dares take risks in case they appear disloyal and jeopardise their chances of preferment.

So here’s a proposal – and you can ask it at the hustings. Will both candidates pledge that anyone joining their kitchen cabinet, whether as staff or unpaid advisors, must forfeit any claim to a peerage or any other honour for the duration of their leadership?

This would deter most hangers-on and naysayers from wanting to join the leader’s team in the first place. It’s not a complete solution but it would send out a strong signal about the style of leadership the new leader proposes to adopt. And it would increase the leader’s chances of receiving disinterested advice.

In Ancient Rome, following a notable victory, a crown was usually held above the head of the triumphant general, with the individual holding the crown charged to repeat continually, “Remember, thou art mortal.” It is in such a spirit that our new leader should appoint his kitchen cabinet.

* Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who helps write and produce Liberator magazine.

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18 Comments

  • Peter Bancroft 23rd Nov '07 - 11:05am

    This is pretty typical Lib Dem anti-“anyone who’s in authority” atuff – not to say that all of that is a bad thing.

    The suggestion seems harmless enough, though I think to imagine that it would actually make a difference is getting a little too caught up into the outsider’s imagination of how the insiders are run.

  • Peter Bancroft - Fact Check 23rd Nov '07 - 11:41am

    What do you know about how things are run on the inside Peter?? You don’t do any thing for the party.

  • readingliberal 23rd Nov '07 - 12:00pm

    2. It’s never stopped Peter spouting forth in the past. Maybe he’s ‘the voice of the armchair member’?

  • See It from the inside 23rd Nov '07 - 12:16pm

    To be blunt – Simon is just making this up.

    he hasn’t got a clue what actually goes on in a leader’s office, how different advisers advise, who has the ear and who doesn’t, how peerages are handed down or not.

    This is just utter speculation.

    The two examples he uses are rot – of course there were people around kennedy saying support Iraq – some people believed that was the right course – there were also loads of people saying no chance – the whole point is that the Leader gets a range of advice – hawks and doves

    Using the lack of publicity on the Environment as an example is just piffle – what people like Titley only see is what is reported, not how much work and effort goes unreported.

    The insinuation that anybody who goes to work for a leader is after a peerage is frankly insulting.

    This is a classic case of ‘We activists are pure of heart, you in the parliamentary party only care about yourself’

    rubbish – I’ve seen the hours these people work, the blood, the sweat and the many, many tears. The passion, the desperation to do well, to get it right, to stick to principle, to impress the public as well as the party.

    How dare you, how dare you say its all about peerages, shame on you.

  • Money and Mouth 23rd Nov '07 - 1:42pm

    Care to name names Simon, otherwise your article is not worth the bitterness its written with.

    Who out of Kennedy’s ‘bunker’ was enobled by his leadership?

    Who from Campbell’s ‘bunker’ was enobled by his leadership?

  • Peter Bancroft 23rd Nov '07 - 1:58pm

    Yipes, such a torrade of personal abuse from anonymous users. Not that’s especially surprising…

  • Read “Victims of Groupthink” by Irving L Janis.

    Investigates the bunker mentality of the US Government during the Vietnam war.

  • Why anonymous 23rd Nov '07 - 4:10pm

    I know being anonomous is annoying to those who are able to post under their own names.

    Some of us, who really care and who are personally affected, just aren’t able to do that I’m afraid

    Occasionally, however, it is necessary to post so that things that are just so off beam don’t go unchallenged or gain currency

  • Peter Bancroft 23rd Nov '07 - 4:31pm

    And so long as you feel that there’s been a serious intellectual “challenge” with well argued points and new, useful insights, then you can be happy with yourself!

  • Martin Land 23rd Nov '07 - 4:46pm

    I’m always a bit suspicious of members of the Liberator Clique spouting about groupthink and conspiracies. But perhaps I should respect them more, after all more than 30 years as a closed and self-propagating commune could give them a valuable insight into such behaviour.
    Of course leaders surround themselves with a group of advisors. And of course, this can be dangerous. But it can also help a leader, who may not… how can I put this delicately… always be able to rely on the advice of his or her colleagues as being totally disinterested.

    Two points; I think we should cut the leader some slack and secondly, we should all make an effort to have a Party President from outside the Bubble who can frankly advise leaders when they feel they are becoming detached from their colleagues or from the general mood of the party.

  • I am sure that no one in this party becomes involved because they want to sit in the House of Lords, but ask yourself, did David Steel become semi-detached from the activists? Did Paddy Ashdown semi-covertly pursue a course that was contrary to the wishes of the activists? Strangely, it felt as though Charles Kennedy was most in touch with the membership, at least during those periods when he wasn’t more or less invisible.

  • anonymously anonymous 25th Nov '07 - 1:48pm

    You anonymous posters, it’s amazing how none of you have anything constructive to say. Funny that.

    James and Simon have it right. All the hangers-on who exist around the leader (one of whom even seemed to get his girlfriend a peerage) crave the status, the access and all of that. Yet the advice they gave Kennedy on Iraq was supremely duff. (Though I’m only aware of one – named in Liberator – who was pro-the Iraq war – the rest was timidity.)

    There is an important separation though with staff – most of whom genuinely do care to get this right though they may not have the networks with the activists etc – they are not there for a gong, hardly any of them have ever been offered or taken one.

  • Angus J Huck 25th Nov '07 - 2:25pm

    No 16:

    Mark Oaten was pro- Iraq War. On “Question Time” he said to Bernard Jenkin: “They (the French) will come round.” But he kept his trap obediently shut when he saw which way the wind was blowing.

    I would have preferred the Party’s position to be that we would oppose Cheney’s war even if the UN Security Council sanctioned it. The billions of dollars in bribes offered by the US government could have tipped the balance – it was touch and go right up to the wire.

    Thank goodness CK did at least go the length he did.

    The next leader MUST, MUST, MUST, oppose war with Iran.

    Both candidates have said they will, so let’s hold them to it.

    No ifs, no buts, no support for war.

  • Peter Dunphy 4th Dec '07 - 1:55pm

    5. I don’t think Simon is necessarily referring to the (under)paid staffers but rather those individuals that they used to refer to in the Liberal Party as ‘The Great and the Good’. These are the individuals in usually unpaid and often appointed roles – such as senior peers that act as speechwiters, ‘Head of Office’ or ‘Head of the General Election Campaign’. The old Kennedy ‘Bunker’, which did become more exclusive as his leadership progressed and which was completely excluded by Ming, has interestingly split between the Clegg and Huhne camps. Like any other group of individuals some of them are hard working with the best of intentions whilst others are not. I would hope that whoever wins the Leadership will have the good judgement to tell which from which and also ensure that the door remains open to new advice.

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