We’ve all felt out of our depth, when the pressure is on and the mind goes blank. The human reaction in those moments is fight or flight. But the leaders of British public life – the politicians, journalists, civil servants and opinion-writers – have developed a third instinct. They bluff.
Today, Britain is run by bluffers: a group of generalists confident in their ability to turn their hand to pretty much anything, even when they know pretty much nothing. Politicians, in particular, are often compared unfavourably to used car salesmen. But most forecourt dealers know quite a lot about cars. George Osborne became editor of the Evening Standard without ever having been a journalist.
It’s convenient to imagine bluffing as being a modern phenomenon. Back in the day, Parliament and the press galleries were home to some real experts; admirals and generals offered trenchant comment on defence policy, for example.
For the expert bluffer, knowledge is either an ornament to be hung on an argument, or simply a handicap to be avoided
But the truth is that there was never really a golden age of respected, specialist politicians – bluffing generalists have always been a big part of Establishment life. Pitt the Younger and Robert Peel were both 21 when they first arrived in Parliament from Oxbridge, thereby proving that even when it comes to inexperienced blagging, the late Georgians and Victorians were just better than us. Even our most respected past leaders are without a leg to stand on: Churchill once said that “scientists should be on tap, not on top”.
For the expert bluffer, knowledge is either an ornament to be hung on an argument, or simply a handicap to be avoided. David Davis, the erstwhile Brexit minister, cheerfully told MPs that he avoided looking at his officials’ advice on the possible impacts of Britain leaving the European Union: “I took the view that I wanted to be able to say that I did not read [it].”
Davis is unexceptional, in so many ways. Last month, Chris Grayling – who, let’s not forget, is a man who has now been Transport Secretary for two years – admitted he “wasn’t a specialist in rail matters”. A substantial chunk of Britain’s leaders has -apparently decided that when 30 seconds of last-minute cramming doesn’t cover over all the cracks, there’s always indefatigable overconfidence to see them through. The depressing thing is, they’re often right.
Most bluffers – whether in Westminster, Whitehall or Fleet Street – aren’t born. They’re made. Many of the most well-known bluffers in the country have been graduates of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from the University of Oxford. PPE is the ultimate training ground for the aspiring Establishment figure. That’s not an -accident. When Oxford created the course shortly after the First World War, it was done with shaping the country’s future leaders very much at the forefront of their minds.
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PPE, like other undergraduate courses at Oxford, teaches students skills that become vital for life in the Westminster bubble. The famous tutorial system, where hungover teenagers attempt to defend their arguments to a tutor who is a renowned expert in the field, provides the perfect warm-up for that awkward Newsnight -interview or select committee hearing.
The essay crisis the night before bears close resemblance to the senior civil -servant’s last-minute ministerial briefing note or the star columnist’s thundering editorial; all three drafted in haste by a writer who knew nothing about the topic 24 hours ago. You have to know the rules of the game in order to play it well. PPE teaches it better than anywhere else.
After leaving the training ground, getting on as a skilled bluffer is easy. The game is stacked in your favour. Getting a foothold in the civil service, journalism or political circles tends to demand three things: an artfully written application form, a confident interview and the willingness to look busy. This is meat and drink to the trained bluffer. Once on the inside, it is all too easy for plausible generalists to slide up the greasy pole, rising without trace.
Bluffing isn’t usually about being lazy or calculating
Most bluffers aren’t bad people. Bluffing isn’t usually about being lazy or calculating, and often it’s quite hard work. Quite honestly, bluffers are bluffers because it’s often the only thing they have learned to do well. Trust me on this. It’s all I’ve got.
But in a complex world, complacent bluffing has become seductive and dangerous. History may look back on the Brexit debate as pitting two different types of bluffers with terrible poker hands against one another: the traditional Establishment smoothness of Cameron and Osborne versus the populist, trading floor tub-thumping of Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks. The Leave campaign won that particular battle of words. Unfortunately, now we know that words is all either side of the debate ever really had.
If Britain leaves its current crop of people who are habitually winging it at the helm, we are in for a rocky ride. But if we can find ways to bring in expertise, reform how we educate our elites and reshape our media so as not to punish those efforts, then who knows? We might just bluff our way through it.