In a former life I offered advice to policy-makers on the presentation of their plans; how to clarify the story they wanted to tell, what sort of criticism they might expect and how best to respond to challenges to their proposals. My then boss would always urge me to make my advice “trenchant”. He loved that word; the very sound of it carried the punch he wanted to convey. It means sharp, effective, cutting to the heart of the matter.
Policy-makers must be concerned with detail and complexity. The media has little appetite for anything that might obfuscate the clear simple story it wants to tell. When Keir Starmer presented Labour’s position on Brexit Sky political correspondent Beth Rigby described the contrast between the Conservative position, a clear break with the single market, customs union and European Court of Justice and the Lib Dems rearguard Remain campaign. Labour’s message she averred was “nuanced” from which we were to understand “hopelessly confused”. Being nuanced, it seems, is a term of abuse, this despite the fact that Brexit will be the result of a negotiation, the outcome of which will only gradually emerge from very detailed and complex political and economic calculations.
Trenchant advice is most valuable, I’m sure, where it pushes against hard, substantive positions, testing, honing, flint against flint, sharpening the edge of strongly held views. I am sure Lynton Crosby offers trenchant advice to the Prime Minister. It was Crosby, I am sure, who encouraged the Prime Minister to adopt Ken Clarke’s description of her as “a bloody difficult woman”. But trenchant advice doesn’t work so well with politicians whose policies bear only the impression of the last person who sat on them. Without real substance to push against, trenchant advice risks creating two dimensional responses to three dimensional issues.
This week Theresa May revealed herself to be the true successor to a former Tory leader. Cartoonist Steve Bell famously presented John Major with his underpants outside his trousers “as the badge of an essentially crap Superman”. On Wednesday May responded to unflattering briefing in the German press of her meeting with Jean Claude Junker. She had clearly been advised to ditch any semblance of statesmanship and hang tough. Kicking eurocrats will play well to her constituency. So the Prime Minister promptly slipped her pants over her skirt and took on the guise of another incredible comic book superhero (more talented than Major clearly since it’s harder to wear your pants over a skirt).
In her Downing Street press conference she pledged to thwart perfidious foreigners intent on wrecking British democracy and prosperity, take action against the extremists who wish to divide “us” and stand up to the separatists who wish to tear “our” country apart. Instead she pledged to bring this country together.
The trouble for May is that it is just not possible to connect with someone who is so obviously inauthentic. On the one hand you cannot hope to represent a united country while disparaging large parts of it for its treachery. On the other, if you make unfounded claims to be the “hard man” of British politics you will be found out eventually, no matter how much the public appears to believe you now. I may be naive but I believe honesty is still an important political principle, Donald Trump notwithstanding.
It turns out I wasn’t very good at giving trenchant advice. I just don’t feel very secure about being certain. I am much more comfortable with doubt, admitting the possibility that other people may have a point, that complexity can’t always be resolved to simple precepts. This is not what I was being paid for and eventually the “professional” facade started to crumble, big time.
I don’t give advice any longer. I seek it, not to be sharper, more effective, or to cut to the heart of the matter, but to have heart. It concerns me that our politics is so far removed from anything that resembles dialogue, negotiation and compromise. US researcher Brené Brown laments that in contemporary politics “there is no discourse any more, there is no conversation, there is just blame. You know what blame is… a way to discharge pain and discomfort”. Brown is concerned to understand vulnerability as a source of creativity and belonging. She says in order “ for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen”, that connection can only come from authenticity. It’s not trenchant, but it’s good advice.