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Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon on Westminster Hour

by Carley Bowman

Thinking the Unthinkable’s Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon discussed the challenges of political leadership with John Beesley on BBC’s Westminster Hour.

The programme was aired on BBC Radio 4 on July 29th 2018.

It is no longer available on the BBC iPlayer so here is a transcript of the interview and subsequent studio discussion, led by Anne McElvoy, with Conservative MP Robert Halfon, Labour MP Chris Leslie and Martha Spurrier, director of the campaigning organisation, Liberty.

Anne McElvoy:

Now, mass migration, geopolitical instability, the artificial intelligence revolution. Is the pace and scale of change across the world, leaving our political leaders unable to cope? A new book compiled from hundreds of interviews with people at the highest levels of politics and business paints a disturbing picture of an elite trapped by conformist thinking, unable to deal with crumbling certainties and disgruntled by volatile electorates. The book is called Thinking the Unthinkable, and our reporter, John Beesley, has been talking to its co-authors, Chris Langdon, an expert in conflict resolution, and the television journalist, Nik Gowing.

Nik Gowing:

Our main finding from hundreds of interviews with people right at the top, chairmen, chief executives, senior people in government, is this. The conformity which got them to the top is no longer appropriate for understanding and handling the level of disruption we now see, and we were coming to that conclusion even before the Brexit vote in June of 2016, and also before Trump was nominated and elected. But, at the beginning of June 2016, we predicted both.

John Beesley:

Chris Langdon, you co-authored this book. Why should conformity be such a problem? After all, people look to the past, they look to previous models, they want to get on? The company has rules. If people follow the rules, surely, that’s not a bad thing, is it?

Chris Langdon:

Following the rules is not necessarily a bad thing, but we have done two and a half thousand pages of transcripts, talking to leaders off the record from the commercial world, the corporate world, and also the world of politics. And what is remarkable how this word conformity comes through at whatever level. We hear from junior staff about the risks of career-limiting moves. Within the senior political level, they’re concerned if they raise things with the very senior leaders that it will also affect their career. And therefore there’s a sense of the very time when we need to be more open with so many extraordinary events happening around us, and new processes, technology, change. That leaders are not getting the information that they need to make the decisions. And that’s partly because of the behaviour of leaders themselves, being restrictive to the really important information.

John Beesley:

Why then, does this matter now, more than at any other time? Because we have seen times of profound change in the past. If you look at the 1920s, when of course there was a huge, worldwide crash. There were the emergence of nation states. There were huge advances in technology and telecommunications and aviation. And then we had of course the rise of nationalism. Big changes, then. Why does it matter even more now?

Nik Gowing:

Of course, historians will tell you there’s always been instability. But we are where we are at the moment because of this level of disruption and challenge to all the norms that have been created, particularly since the Second World War. And it’s becoming very difficult for those at the top to handle this. They have conceded this. Why is it important now? Because the public doesn’t like what it sees, and what you’re seeing is the kind of disruption in politics brought upon by politicians by migration, and issues like that. This is because the public is saying, “You promised us better. Actually, we’re getting worse.” And it’s therefore not what we call populism. We would call it push-backism. It’s because the public, not just because of social media, is passing judgment very quickly on those in charge, whether in the corporate sector or in the public sector. But it’s happening at an amazing speed, this level of disruption, and that’s why it’s really testing conformity.

John Beesley:

Do you then, as authors, with all the data you’ve collected, manage to come up with any prescriptions? The leaders, as to how they can behave differently, and try and bring back some of the stability that you say that we’ve lost?

Chris Langdon:

Yes, as we’ve been going around the world, because this isn’t just a British project, we have talked to a number of leaders who are doing things differently. And there’s a certain pattern of behaviours that we establish. One is they have to be open, and they have to listen to what their subordinates say. That often means talking to the next generation. It also means having a clarity of purpose and values in the organization or the company. Or the department if it’s a government. And that sense, there’s a vision of where they’re going with the organization, and taking the staff with them.

Nik Gowing:

Two words which come to mind, specifically, are humility and courage. It’s about the next generation. A lot of the next generation don’t want to become leaders anymore. That’s a very serious problem.

John Beesley:

The question is, I suppose, whether your message is likely to cut through. If you take UK politics at the moment, which is all consumed by Brexit. People can barely talk about anything else. Do you think that that message is going to cut through to people?

Nik Gowing:

It’s cutting through because actually the message is coming from the people who are affected themselves. There’s a public face, and there’s a private face. And the most interesting of those who’ve just left their positions of power and responsibility. Who open up and say, “It was very, very difficult being a leader.” And they are open because they are saying “We can’t let this continue anymore, because leadership is in deep trouble.” [Whispers] But leaders themselves don’t want to talk about it.

John Beesley:

And one final question to you, Chris. The project is called Think the Unthinkable. Of all the things that people are not thinking about, what is the one development you think that they should really be concentrating on, which is not getting any attention at the moment?

Chris Langdon:

Indeed, though we call the book Thinking the Unthinkable, a lot of what we’re talking about is thinking the unpalatable. The difficult questions. And they’re not necessarily nasty questions. They can be really profound, big issues for the future. And the one that I think is most current is the issue of artificial intelligence, AI. I was at an event in the Palace of Westminster 10 days ago, with some of the finest thinkers from Oxford and Cambridge and from Princeton. It was in the Portcullis House, but there were no political leaders there. And there was an extraordinarily important discussion about the nature of the processes that we will have to understand, and those processes cannot be developed by scientists alone. Or by technologists. It involves active engagement with the public sector, the public service, and political leaders. And that at the moment, with bandwidth problem with Brexit, is a real problem.

Nik Gowing:

It is not just about thinking the unthinkable, it is bout thinking the unpalatable. And when you look back to the migration crisis of 2015, no-one really wanted to believe the warnings coming through from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. And the International Organisation for Migration. They were warning what would happen. And as a result, you’ve seen the enormous pressure on the stability and the public trust in governments around Europe. Europe is teetering on the edge of unity and remaining a European Union, because they were not prepared in 2015 to accept the warnings that were coming of what was coming down the track in migration. That was an unthinkable. But it was also an unpalatable. Which the politicians didn’t want to grip. And now it is becoming an existential threat to the European Union and many governments around Europe.

Studio Discussion:

Anne McElvoy:

Authors Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon in conversation with our reporter, John Beesley. Chris Leslie, do we recognize this crisis of political leadership that they describe here when they talk about countries being failed by political class?

Chris Leslie MP:

Well yes, I think it’s a very short-term political culture of not just in the UK, but in many other countries. I’ve actually just published a pamphlet on the centre ground of British politics, with the Social Market Foundation, which was very much about the swirling populism, not just in the UK, but in the States and elsewhere. And I think it plays very much to the points that we just heard in the piece. Yes, you’ve got to focus on your values, if you’re a political leader. Fair play, responsibility, sustainability, truthfulness in the way you decide. But ultimately, if you are fixated on an ideology, that sort of harking back to some nostalgic golden age that never was in the 1950s and the 1970s, you’re going to fail to govern on the virtues of the evidence, the facts. Being open-minded and assessing, analysing, in real time. Those are the sorts of political leaders we need, and I’m afraid they’re not around as much as they perhaps should be.

Anne McElvoy:

Not above the harvest, you might say. Robert, do we get the leaders we deserve? There’s part of the problem, perhaps a bit more than was reflected there. The voters, never mind politicians, voters don’t want to think about the unpalatable? So they may not want to think about tax rises to fund public services such as social care. Even though they’ll tell you in the next breath, they want that.

Robert Halfon MP:

Well, my own instinct is that change is coming. And we’re not yet there at the tipping point, but the dam is about to burst. And I think there is going to be some big realignment of politics in this country. I thought it was fascinating that the authors were talking about the impact of artificial intelligence. As someone who’s passionate about skills, this is going to be dramatic. This is a fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s going to affect every class: working class, middle class, alike. And potentially, they say, that’s about 28% of jobs currently done by young people, will be lost to artificial intelligence. It’s going to impact us in ways that we cannot even imagine. And we’re woefully unprepared for it, and we need a radical thinking in terms of our education, our curriculum, the way we look at universities, skills, and all kinds of things. And that is where I think serious leadership is needed.

Anne McElvoy:

And if we look more internationally, Martha, we see strongman leaders, whether it’s Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, on the rise doing rather well. Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has swept the board in recent polls on a very authoritarian ticket. Is it because they say things that many of their voters would like to have said, even if democracy’s found very unpalatable?

Martha Spurrier:

I think, ironically, you can be a leader even though you don’t demonstrate the values of leadership. And what we want from our leaders should be courageous, ethical, evidence-based leadership. Setting out realisable, hopeful visions for the future. Holding ideals even when they’re unpopular, and being held accountable to those ideals. And cleaving to them, even when it’s difficult. And I think we see a dearth of that across our politics, domestically and internationally.

Anne McElvoy:

But I wonder whether there is a bit of a cult of the strong man. Here at home, Chris, possibly because where we’re dealing with something so difficult as referendum-related problem of Brexit, is the roughly speaking, just under half, and just over, people going to be disappointed. They like the idea that someone would throw their views into very strong relief. Not so bothered about the others.

Chris Leslie MP:

Well, again, I don’t want to fall back on blaming social media for the ills of the world. But I do find sometimes that we’re in an era where everything has to be black and white. And it’s deeply unfashionable to say “Well, actually, maybe there are some good ideas from this group of people. But actually, we should listen and possibly be open minded to others.” I just think that the evidence, facts have become very unfashionable. And I think we need to really strongly reassert, let’s make decisions by evidence.

Anne McElvoy:

Strong leadership, strong reassertion, are we getting that strength from Theresa May, Robert Halfon?

Robert Halfon MP:

Well, I think she’s pretty resilient. I often liken her to being in the round, and Rocky III is one of my favourite films, being it’s facing Clubber Lang, otherwise known as Mr T, and sort of coming out strong. I’ve also called her Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout. So given what she faces, she’s pretty resilient. But it’s not so much the cult of the strong man, it’s what people want as the cult of straight-talking people. And that’s one of the reasons why they thought Jeremy Corbyn, at least initially, he got a lot of popularity and people like Nigel Farage do, because people are wanting straight talk as a not-Identikit politicians.

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