The British have a strange attachment to the “amateur” spirit which places the emphasis on muddling through.
The chaos on the railways and our lack of preparation for Brexit are at least partly due to our curious hostility towards people who are experts in their field, and therefore, likely to know what they are talking about. Brexit is a glaring example of this weakness. Our preparations to leave the EU have been described as “incompetent” by the former Bank of England governor Lord King, who told the BBC it “beggared belief” that the world’s sixth-biggest economy should be talking of stockpiling food and medicines.
The Government may claim that significant progress has been made towards an agreement, but it would be hard to find anyone in business who believes that the UK’s Brexit negotiating strategy has been a masterpiece of strategic thinking.
A smarter approach would have involved delaying the triggering of Article 50 until a crack team of negotiators had been assembled who understood the complexity of EU-UK relations. Real experts - such as the Institute of Directors’ Allie Renison - have been forced to tweet from the sidelines, often with thinly disguised horror, as we head towards the cliff edge.
Transport is another area which has desperately needed an expert hand at the helm. The current Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has survived repeated calls for his resignation. He has failed to confront the chaos that threatens to paralyse the train service in parts of Britain.
Few people in the legal profession have fond memories of Mr Grayling’s time as Justice Secretary. In a new book, the journalist Isabel Hardman quotes Mr Grayling as saying that his ignorance of the legal profession was “actually helpful” in enabling him to reform the justice system.
Mr Grayling did not impress Kevin Hopper, managing director of Brian Yeardley Continental, when he met him to discuss Brexit.
Mr Hopper said: “The Secretary of State was surrounded by advisors... I do not want to appear disrespectful but it was clear he either knew nothing about the transport industry or was ill-informed.”
It doesn’t have to be like this. Here are two examples of political giants who stepped into ministerial roles armed with a strong will and a mastery of their brief. The Conservative politician Iain Macleod, who was born in Skipton, had quite a hinterland. A professional card player in his youth, he became a wartime major who arrived on the D-Day beaches 40 minutes after the initial landings. Macleod had the stamina and intellectual depth to becoming a towering figure in the 1950s and 1960s. He helped to oversee the decolonisation of Africa, supported the abolition of the death penalty and expanded the still-fledgling NHS. He never became Prime Minister, partly because he gained a reputation for being “too clever by half”, according to his biographer Edward Pearce.
Denis Healey was another towering intellect who never hid his light under a bushel. His wartime service included being a beachmaster in Sicily where he had to show leadership under fire. There were no focus groups or spin doctors on the battlefield. His world view was shaped by conflict. He despised politicians who sent soldiers to their deaths lightly. He was the perfect candidate for Defence Secretary in 1964, where he inherited a shambles. There was an undeclared war against Indonesia and a lack of a coherent defence strategy. But, in the space of four years, Healey proved that a strong, well-informed minister can make a difference.
As Richard Heller, Healey’s former adviser noted: “In 1968, not one British soldier was killed in action, a record never since repeated. For the first time since the war, the British government spent less on defence than on education - but nonetheless our forces were better equipped, better paid and better housed.”
Healey never made it to Number 10. In common with Macleod, he did not suffer fools gladly. But what the stories of Healey and Macleod teach us is the importance of trusting capable individuals who do not carry their erudition lightly.
An abrasive genius will always serve us better than any affable fool.