Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Failure to Plan

Brexit proved that the UK doesn't do planning. A popular theory is that David Cameron believed he would not have to honour his EU referendum commitment to his own party after 2015, assuming that the widely-predicted hung parliament would allow him to sacrifice it in coalition negotiations, as he had done with inheritance tax reform in 2010. This suggests that the Tories didn't plan for all eventualities last year, despite the limited number of possible outcomes (win, lose, draw). Part of me is incredulous that any politician would be so careless, but there is ample evidence that the electoral throw of the dice is rarely accompanied by much cunning. For example, there are competing theories as to why Labour was unable to secure LibDem support for a coalition in 2010, but the claim by David Laws that they were "too disorganised or divided even to table clear positions" probably has some truth to it, even if arithmetic, personal distaste and intellectual exhaustion were ultimately more decisive. The last month suggests the PLP hasn't improved much since.

The judgement of the Chilcot Inquiry was that the Iraq war was a failure of planning from beginning to end. The US had a plan well in advance of the conflict, i.e. regime change, but the UK lacked similarly clear goals ("I will be with you, whatever") and never settled on a coherent plan for decision-making domestically. This lack of planning and the consequent reliance on Tony Blair's "belief" system allowed the UK to be manoeuvred into an open-ended commitment without adequate scrutiny of the objectives, the means or the risks. There was, catastrophically, a failure to plan for the aftermath of Saddam's downfall, while the operational planning of the occupying British troops in the south of the country has already become a textbook example of how not to do it. The parallel deployment in Afghanistan was little better, suggesting that trying to "punch above your weight" will usually lead to a bloodied nose at best and being pummelled senseless at worst.

Afghanistan and Iraq were not exceptions. The UK's current military preparedness suggests a persistent lack of adequate planning, from the macro-farce of aircraft carriers without aircraft to the micro-farce of the wrong sort of boots. To show that this isn't a recent development, we only have to recall that 2016 is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the culmination of the Dardanelles Campaign. The replacement of Trident is another example of poor planning, not so much in terms of the well-known limitations of a continuous at sea deterrent (CASD), that can only guarantee one boat in the water at any time, but in that we are wholly dependent on the willingness of the US to allow us to pay for and man a small part of their nuclear fleet. Britain's future "independent nuclear deterrent" is whatever the US government decides it is going to be, which means we have abdicated planning authority.

At this point it is worth noting that the particular aspects of planning I'm focusing on are plan design (working out the best course of action to achieve a goal) and adaptation (dealing with contingencies - i.e. "events, dear boy, events"). Planning is actually about how we handle uncertainty, hence the importance of deterministic and probabilistic analysis (what are the relationships, what are the odds). However, the modern understanding of planning is increasingly biased towards the concept of control, i.e. imposing certainty. The obvious example is the pre-2008 belief that risk in financial markets could be managed away, that the unknown (the "Black Swan event") did not need to be considered. At the level of the personal, planning has evolved from the pragmatic and contingent (shopping lists, booking a holiday) to the performative and permanent (wishlists, timelines, activity trackers). The aim is less to reduce uncertainty through foresight (what shall I buy, where shall we go?) than to reduce chance and loss (no surprises, never forget anything, full visibility). Against this, the lack of foresight and casual risk-taking of politicians is remarkable.

The great ideological battle of the twentieth century was between central planning (one big plan) and the use of the price mechanism to distribute planning (lots of plans of varying sizes). In this simplistic history, central planning peaked in the middle decades of the century before the sclerosis of the 70s led to the triumph of the market. In practice, central planning has never been in ruder health. The growth of multinational corporations, amplified by the winner-takes-all dynamics of the digital economy, has created large companies run on a command and control basis whose planning scope and expertise exceeds that of many countries. Stories of businesses that have grown "too big" (Sports Direct), or been ruined by inexpert managers (BHS), are usually evidence of exploitation, not the shortcomings of planning. While government is derided, and publicly-funded academic experts are denigrated, businesses that exhibit the secrecy and dictatorial certainty of the USSR under Stalin receive a market premium.

For all the talk of deregulation and the reality of privatisation, the scope of state planning has continued to expand in areas such as health, education, utilities and transport. This shouldn't come as a surprise. We live in a more interdependent world, which is the product of deliberate and growing specialisation by function as much as technological determinism or ecological consciousness. The state plays a central role in enabling that specialisation by creating markets through legislation, providing complex human resources and physical infrastructure, and coordinating finance capital through guarantees and underwriting. While this is not as overt or formalised as it was in the 1960s, and the suggestion that the state is directing the market remains anathema, the reality is central planning in all but name. As we have recently seen with the new government's embrace of the phrase "industrial strategy", even the language can be changed when circumstances demand.

The postwar era in the UK was marked by planning that was ambitious in scale but sometimes ill-thought out in detail (e.g. social housing), and grandiose projects that betrayed post-imperial over-reach (e.g. Blue Streak). The root problem wasn't a technical failing of planning so much as political delusion, a problem that has got progressively worse since the magical thinking of the 1980s. The two characteristics of a white elephant are uncertainty in the plan design (e.g. the London terminus of HS2) and a lack of contingency planning (e.g. if France pulls out of the Hinkley C project). The Northern Powerhouse is a postmodern example of this planning delusion in which the heroic predictions and sunny visualisations float freely above the tangible but modest reality of enterprise zones and local authority pump-priming. Politicians can associate themselves with the good bits - the vision thing and cutting ribbons - while blaming others for the failure to meet expectations. In such a dishonest environment, even George Osborne's serial failure to meet the targets of his own "long-term economic plan" couldn't prove fatal.

Perhaps the finest recent exponent of postmodern planning has been Boris Johnson, a man who as Mayor of London largely abdicated planning authority when it came to greenlighting office blocks and luxury flats, who claimed the credit for the schemes of others (bikes), and indulged poorly-designed projects solely for their PR value (pointless bridges, an estuarine airport, the rubbish Routemaster revival). The failure to properly plan his way to Number 10 was predictable. His elevation to Foreign Secretary is being treated as a rueful joke by most people, which means we are once more indulging the comic character rather than the really existing shit. Brexit has downgraded the relationship between the UK and the US (always instrumental rather than sentimental), and the corollary of that is a devaluation in the standing of the Foreign Office, which has become little more than a ceremonial adjunct to trade. Despite being a walking insult, Johnson is perhaps well-suited to the role.

Just as Iraq surely ended the UK's delusions of being a military "playa" on the world stage (and has probably set the clock ticking on our membership of the UN Security Council), so Brexit has recalibrated our diplomatic status to better match our future as a medium-sized nation without any major strategic significance (we're much less important to the US now than Japan). What stands out when we look back over the last 15 years, from Blair's zeal to Cameron's insouciance, is the dereliction of strategic planning in the political sphere at a time when tactical planning has been at a premium, from the daily grid of news management through multinational supply chains to the advance of globalisation by regulation and treaty. It's almost as if we've collectively decided to reward politicians who appear to be making it up as they go along because we value spontaneity. While a "man with a plan" can be dangerous, a failure to plan usually means failure.

1 comment:

  1. I think the reason why there has been such a void in planning at a political level is that it poses a threat to the interests of the establishment (in its widest sense). They value freedom of manoeuvre to maintain their position, to keep the ability to manipulate opinion and resist any firm commitments, whether technocratic in nature or due to accountability from below. This attitude stretches very broadly across the political elites and mostly firmly resides at the moment within the PLP.

    What stands out at the moment is the sheer intellectual weakness of planning and even any real sense of an ideological project among the political class. Even the 'windowdressing' failed modernisation crusades of the likes of Wilson, Thatcher and Blair find few echoes nowadays. The best they can do when it comes to preparing for the future is to cling onto status symbols like Trident.