Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Simon Anholt (ST 21)

1. “Grand Strategy

I don’t want to waste further time quibbling over terminology, but I’m very much opposed to the idea of an “emergent” strategy, which seems to me to be tantamount to admitting the absence of leadership in the system. Strategy drives policy, it doesn’t emerge as a result of policies. Politically incorrect thought this may seem to some, strategy must be defined by leaders.

Incidentally, it is even less desirable for strategy to be defined by focus groups. Polling is useful for understanding what voters think, and understanding what voters think is essential to governance, but that isn’t at all the same thing as saying that voters should make strategy. It is well known in the private sector that consumer research is very useful to test concepts but not to create them. If you ask a thousand ordinary people for their suggestions they will tend to come up with the notions which most closely resemble the things they have experienced in the past—and that’s hardly a recipe for good strategy.

By contrast, I don’t have a problem with the idea of Grand Strategy, or the expression. In this context, the word “grand” simply means stepping back and taking in a wider landscape in order to provide a fuller and truer model of the real world. It involves encompassing more actors in one’s game plan (allies, adversaries, neutrals, the media and other commentators, domestic and international public opinion); encompassing more facets of national life and human activity in the plan (soft as well as hard power; perception as well as reality; industrial, educational, cultural, environmental and economic factors as well as political and military); and encompassing a broader sweep of time than the current campaign (ie beyond the term in office of the policy-makers).

For this reason, the substitution of the word “national” for “grand” doesn’t really do it for me: if anything, it belittles the thing, tending to make it sound purely domestic when one of the chief characteristics of Grand Strategy is that it attempts to embrace many nations in its scope—indeed arguably, in our globalised world, we have no choice but to embrace all nations in our strategies.

One could, of course, play around with buzzwords and create a construct like “total strategy” or even “big strategy” but I don’t see “grand” vs. “normal” strategy as choices: Grand Strategy is simply good strategy, while strategy that doesn’t embrace all of these issues hardly deserves the name of strategy at all.

2. “Vision

I’d like to make a defence of the word “vision”, and this is more than terminology: it’s fundamental to the issues we are debating.

Of course it’s always tempting to discard all imports from the corporate world as superficial trash, and to dismiss as superficial and even dangerous all attempts to mix the tawdry business of selling products to consumers with statecraft and public policy: but the reality is that both have to deal with the same elusive material, that of collective human nature, and the infinitely complex and interconnected global non-society and its multiple actors, and there are many things we can learn from each other.

There’s a reason why commerce learned so many lessons from military strategy and statecraft during the 20th century, and there might well be a reason why strategy and statecraft should—with great caution—learn some things from seeing how commerce has developed and taken forward these arts in its own environment, to resolve its own very different challenges.

Peter Hennessy says:

“I think the word “vision” is now such a piece of linguistic litter that it should be abandoned. The contagion of the language of the management consultant into the business of government, I’m sure, appals you all as much as it appals me. I think if the word “vision” comes up, we should have the equivalent of a red buzzer to squeeze it out in our discussions today and with other witnesses”.

Yet, from the excellent RCDS Strategy Handbook, we hear this:

“At the end of a recent RCDS strategic leadership phase, over 90% of the membership considered (rightly in our view) that the best strategic insights had come from civilian (including commercial) speakers and panellists”.

Do we run the risk of becoming the victims of our own snobbery?

It seems to me that a pre-requisite of this kind of debate is that we all, at least temporarily, disconnect our red buzzers.

Why do our experts hate the word “vision” so much? Is it because it sounds fluffy, pretentious, religious, Blairite? Is it because we have a deeply-rooted cultural mistrust of things that can’t be measured or which appear to blur the boundary between the concrete and the imaginary?

Yet as Professor Prins says, “To phronesis we should add metis—conjectural knowledge (sometimes translated as “cunning”): the learned capacity for handling complexity that combines flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, and opportunism. It can provide the ability to anticipate, modify and influence the shape of events.”

Many other contributors speak of leaps of the imagination, the ability to “think outside the box”—to use another well-worn commercial phrase—or just “creativity”, a word which I define simply as “the opposite of boring”. It’s the ability to capture the imagination of others through what we do, the way we do it, and the way we share it. It is an absolutely indispensible part of statesmanship.

One of the gravest and yet commonest problems I have to tackle with the governments I advise is, quite simply, that they are too boring. Because they are overwhelmed with the extreme seriousness of the tasks they tackle every day—the fact that millions of lives and livelihoods depend on their judgment—they have a tendency to believe that in order to be serious, you have to be boring. No fallacy in government is more common or more risky: in truth, the more serious things are, the more irresponsible it becomes to be boring.

The culture of the civil service, much of the military establishment, many politicians and much of academia, is not necessarily to be anti-strategic, but certainly to be mistrustful of visions. The evidence in this enquiry is laced with casual venom about high-level policy: the recurring snobbery being that this kind of “blue-sky” thinking or “dreaming” is an infinitely poorer and simpler task than the insane complexity of strategy—that baffling and almost impossible game of four-dimensional chess which appeals so strongly to the brilliant minds of the Oxbridge-educated academics, mandarins and military strategists. But the reality is that neither can work on its own: strategy without vision is mere cleverness, and vision without strategy is mere dreaming.

Surely part of the reason for Britain’s failure in strategy is precisely our refusal to acknowledge the importance of imagination and creativity in the game—our determination to believe that national strategy can be a purely ratiocinative process, informed by pseudo-scientific approaches such as “horizon scanning”. This criticism has often been repeated throughout this enquiry, but it is a criticism we should test against ourselves too, for strategy is more art than science, so to exclude the artistic from the game is surely an error.

It is by deliberately excluding the compelling endpoint, by refusing to countenance where the “golden bridge” actually leads, that our strategy loses all its pulling power, and fails to become a coordinating and driving force. Strategy without vision is like an arrow without a tip; the simple, captivating, extraordinary and nearly impossible yet yearned-for goal is what gives sense, hope, sustenance, continuity and meaning to the hard, endless, complex and often thankless work of strategy. It’s what makes government, administration and public cheerfully willing to undergo difficulties, setbacks and even privations—because it’s a clear step towards the realisation of the vision. The mere threat of danger or failure is no substitute for the captivating vision any more than is the standard, anodyne recipe of “peace, security, prosperity”. People and organisations need a positive reason to struggle or they usually won’t bother; they need to know that they are part of building something worthwhile.

The notion that we can’t “do” vision any more because the world is no longer simple enough is preposterous. Even assuming that the world has become less simple (which I doubt), surely this argues for a stronger sense of direction, more leadership? The task of politicians, as Kissinger said, is not to contemplate complexity but to resolve it. The complicated things are, the more people and situations demand and crave simplicity and wisdom.

It is for this reason that the first question I encourage governments to ask themselves before embarking on any programme of national strategy is simply this: what’s our country for? This is surely the fundamental and quintessential question for the age of globalisation.

I also encourage them not to think exclusively in competitive terms. We live in an age of shared, borderless challenges, and even the few countries that inherit significant “soft” power from their past influence, as well as the vast majority that need to build it almost from scratch, will do so through their benign influence in international affairs: in other words, by making themselves useful to people in other countries.

That distinction which Gorbachev made between politician and statesman (“What is the difference between a statesman and a politician? ... A statesman does what he believes is best for his country, a politician does what best gets him re-elected”) should be updated for the modern world: a politician does what he believes is best for his country, a statesman does what he believes is best for humanity.

In my opinion, it’s not primarily the fault or failure of systems or people that we do strategy poorly in Britain, or fail to do it at all: it’s the fault of our strategies, the fact that they lack the courage to lead up to a single, simple vision, a compelling endpoint, the “broad sunny uplands” that Churchill so memorably captured.

After all, we are dealing with people, and people need to be engaged before they will change their behaviour or even put any extraordinary effort into what they do. If you starve the nation and its administration of the right to dream of a better future, you condemn them to becoming demoralised pen-pushers and wage-slaves. What’s missing isn’t a structure or a system for strategy: what is missing is leadership.

Whether this is something we can fix is, of course, another question, but I happen to believe that we can. The wonderful thing about good visions is that they are eminently portable and magnetic. In other words, it hardly matters where or by whom they are cooked up, and they can be offered to politicians for their use. A good vision sells itself and will be taken up by politicians and public alike.

December 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012