The perils of professionalism


by John Kersey

There has been a good deal of talk recently regarding UKIP and “professionalism”. Will Gilpin, outgoing chief executive, thinks the party will remain “a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs” unless it becomes less Farage-centred. Implicit in his commentary is that being enthusiastic amateurs is a bad thing. And in the wake of the departure of Godfrey Bloom – probably the party’s highest-profile figure after Farage – an unnamed UKIP source has opined “…we have to recognise that we live in a modern, inclusive society and we could help mould the future of that society. We have to recognise certain ways of thinking and speaking have changed.” This seems to be a call for UKIP to choose between its present nature and the compromises that would be required of it, not so much so as to be electable, as to enable it to fit in to the prevailing political establishment and to work with bodies such as the Civil Service, the Foreign Office and local government without ruffling too many feathers at home and abroad.

What is not readily discussed in this context is the nature of professionalism and its alternatives. The assumption that professionalism is necessarily a good thing is not one that should follow for any party that uses the word libertarian in its publicity. Indeed, the professions carry with them the most double-edged of swords. On the one hand, there are areas where society is in need of rigorous bodies that ensure that standards are maintained to protect public safety – few, for example, would want to see a return to amateur brain surgery. On the other hand, professional culture has suffered mission creep. It now extends to areas that were not “professional” – and indeed had good reason for not being professional – only a few years ago. Politics is one of these. Where once the idea prevailed that politicians would have an existing career and achievements behind them before entering the House, and would be possessed of an independence of mind that would produce a bottom-up approach to politics, increasingly politicians – such as our own Prime Minister – are rising on the basis of a career entirely spent in politics and related fields such as public relations, and political parties have an authoritarian, top-down approach to policy and strategy, only occasionally derailed by the odd backbench rebellion.

Much that has gone wrong with our society in the last few decades can be laid at the door of a professional political class. Indeed, the rise of that political class exemplifies some of the most significant problems with professionalism. Perhaps the most glaring of these is the abnegation of personal responsibility. Because there is a collectivism inherent in the nature of professionalism, with an overarching set of systems, a common culture, bodies maintaining “standards in public life” and an admission process that is certainly selective (if not necessarily using the right criteria), individuals experience a disinhibiting effect that leads to their placing the culture and norms of their profession ahead of any personal opinions or morals. They are told that their actions must be construed as “for the team”, that interpretation is to be decided as party policy, that dissent is likely to be construed as disloyalty, and that adherence to the professional culture will likely bring about personal enrichment in due course. Moreover, professionalism leads to an expansion of the political class beyond MPs and office staff to a plethora of unelected ancillary political posts, including special advisers of various kinds, fixers and spin-doctors.

Recently, Damian McBride’s memoirs have been serialized in a daily newspaper. McBride, who has confessed to various unpleasant acts during his political career, claims that “the “dark” world of politics encourages vanity, duplicity, greed, hypocrisy and cruelty, and confessed that he was “sucked in like a concubine at a Roman orgy”. It is, of course, possible that McBride’s apologia is not wholly sincere. However, his excuse is the more plausible because it has the ring of truth to it. Professional politics involves a bizarre and amoral set of attitudes and behaviours; in most cases, it is an exemplification of the principle that it is not enough that one must win – others must lose in the process. That the dirty work may be done by a spin-doctor rather than by elected politicians is no more an exoneration than the argument that another member of a murderous cabal struck the blow that proved fatal. That people periodically fall from grace is seen as a validation of the professional culture, which must be working if it roots out the bad hats from time to time. This is a convenient explanation, since it conceals both the precise mechanism that has been involved in that fall and also enables a degree of scapegoating that concentrates media attention upon the individual in question.

It seems not to have been widely considered that these behaviours may well be the consequence of the adoption of a professional culture. Most professions have in common that they are strongly protectionist. They exist not so much to keep the right sort of people in as to keep the wrong sort of people out. They encourage the view that the boundary between those on either side of that fence is rigid, permanent and fulfils an important purpose – typically “maintaining standards”, “protecting the consumer” or “ensuring quality”. Yet all of these matters, with the exception of those which are obvious points of public safety, are more subjective than is generally admitted. The question that is of interest is not so much where the line is drawn, but who draws it and what their reasons are for doing so. Often, there is a monopoly at stake.

Naturally, this process also serves to disempower the public. “Expert culture” is a modern phenomenon that has displaced the attitude, common a generation ago, that a rounded education enabled an intelligent person not only to hold forth with authority upon the subject they had studied, but to acquire related and indeed unrelated knowledge that could enable multi-disciplinary expertise. The view was formerly expressed that a person with a good degree from Oxbridge (or indeed any other competitive university) was equipped not only with a given set of knowledge but with the capacity to expand that knowledge to a potentially infinite extent, and without financial or career considerations necessarily being relevant. The argument that human knowledge has expanded so fast in the last few decades that this is no longer a realistic aim is false. On the contrary, access to information, particularly online, has accelerated to the extent that it is possible to brief oneself on a given topic with much greater ease than was the case hitherto. Certain sections of the public are significantly better-informed as a result.

The difficulty for such autodidacts comes not in the acquisition of knowledge, but in the impact of professionalism upon its effects. Only knowledge gained within the academy – with its certificates, letters and other seals of establishment approval – is admissable, leading to an epidemic of credentialism in areas that were previously blissfully informal. The professional regards the autodidact, as an amateur, as belonging to the other side of the fence – indeed as representing an active danger to the establishment. And indeed, some of those on the other side of the fence have little in their favour. But what is behind this division is not invariably the desire to avoid our universities becoming peopled by individuals in tin foil hats; rather it is the need for professions to validate themselves by defining a clear “out group” who are discredited and even demonized as a means of reinforcing the professions’ self-belief. In politics, which is supposed to be representative, these attitudes are especially dangerous. They have an impact not only upon Westminster, but on the public sector as a whole, whose role is not merely supportive to government but whose consent and active support is essential for governance.

Professionalism is intimately linked to the state. The first professions may have begun not dissimilarly from trades unions, as voluntary associations, but they have long outlived that role, and are now increasingly endorsed by the state as the gatekeepers to the practice of their respective arts and sciences. Specifically, they directly influence state education in their disciplines, act as influential lobbyists, and ensure that their members are kept up-to-speed with the direction that the state is choosing to pursue, which will often be internationally “harmonized” with comparable bodies abroad. When the state seeks to make decisions, it will invariably refer to the professions in the process of the formulation of policy. As a result of the symbiotic relationship of the professions to the state, the decisions that influence that process of gatekeeping are by their nature political decisions. More often than not, they reflect the cultural agenda of the Left – particularly, of course, those parts of that agenda that have become enshrined in law – as well as those that constitute modern-day political shibboleths.

It seems likely that most people who support UKIP (excepting those who derive their career prospects from that association) like the fact that it is not “professional”; indeed that it has clearly differentiated its brand from that of the professional political machine. UKIP will need to think carefully before it rushes to embrace professional culture. By doing so, it may well be abandoning something that is of far greater value than anything it might gain. But if it decides that it is going to oppose, rather than embrace, professionalism, then it will have a fight on its hands that, while in the most just of causes, I doubt it can win without first embracing a complete cultural restructuring of much of this country and in particular its public sector.

It is far easier to accept the establishment way of doing things. The business-as-usual nature of professional politics ensures that individuals can make handsome careers for themselves and the rest is compromise. Every other party that has had a realistic chance of significant electoral power has accepted that compromise and been subsumed into the political establishment. Anyone who does not accept the poisoned chalice risks demonization and a life on the margins. It remains to be seen what choice UKIP’s members will make, but I cannot say I am overly hopeful of the prospects.

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21 responses to “The perils of professionalism

  1. The problem, of course, is that today’s politicians see their loyalty as being to ‘The Party’, not to those who elected them and who pay their wages. And if they want a career they must toe the party line. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Tory leadership – commitment to EU membership is essential if you want to stay in the job. Look what happened to Maggie.
    Poor old Godfrey’s big mistake was to distract the media from the Party conference. The headline news was not UKIP’s rise but Michael Crick being walloped over the head with a UKIP brochure. That was unfortunate. And of course the media misquoted him, in their usual fashion. I suppose “All women are sluts” made a better headline than what he actually said.

  2. Superb article. Will send out this evening or tomorrow.

  3. It will be sad to see UKIP selling out to public hypersensitivity and PC-absurdity.

  4. marklibertarian

    If you give UKIP £1000 you can become a Patron and get access to the policy-making process and breakfasts with Nigel.

    There is therefore a mechanism through which libertarians can influence the policy direction in UKIP.

    I would certainly want to be asking Nigel why he described UKIP as an “egalitarian” party in his recent conference speech, but not a “libertarian” party.

  5. The Overton Window. If you’re outside it, you’ll never become a significant force. If you’re inside it, you have already been subverted and neutered. There’s the problem.

    • Probably why some people have rejected the political process altogether.

      When you think of all the funds, time and energy people have put into activism, you can see why other people now focus on improving their own personal situation and networks as a more practical way of making the world a better place.

    • Here it is.
      I had never heard of it before, but thought that my thoughts that such a model ought to exist were reasonable.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

      Why had I not ever heard of it? Do not I move in the right intellectual circles then?

      I have, however, known about the Johari Window since 1976!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window

      This was used at a sales training exercise that I went on when working at Beecham Medicines in the late 1970s. I later saw an instance where it was ised to classifiy individuals according to their positioning about social freedoms, cross-references with the same for their views on economics. This has proved to be most useful.

  6. UKIP don’t need to become professional, they just need to avoid the inevitable bad publicity that comes from hitting journalists, urinating in hotel corridors, calling for gays to be rounded up and shot, that sort of thing. I don’t see why that’s so hard to grasp. Using terms such as ‘Bongo Bongo Land’ does not represent a valiant struggle against political correctness gone mad. It’s just inept, especially when followed by a load of rubbish explaining how it’s not racist but rather a reference to Omar Bongo of the Gabon.

  7. “There are no golden rules m’laddo.”

    I don’t know what that means exactly. If you are saying that the rules are not set in stone, i.e. are subject to change in time and with regard to place, okay. But if you are suggesting that society does not have rules and conventions of speech and behaviour which are generally understood, then you are certainly wrong. They may not be hard and fast, and the penalties may not be set, but they exist nonetheless.

    One of the tendencies of statists is to overlook such societal mechanisms for regulating behaviour, and seek to impose legal controls. One of the effects of such intervention is to invade and choke the subtle “eco-system” of societal regulation. As a libertarian, I am opposed to this kind of interference, and see laws infringing free speech as unjust, but it would be a mistake to forget that absent these foolish and pernicious laws, there would still be rules (or rather conventions) governing what is polite or impolite in any given situation, to which one is wise to pay attention, so that one can avoid causing unsought for offence, or indeed so that can be sure to offend if that is the intention.

    • What you say is indeed true, and indeed I’ve been arguing for some time that PC is basically just an extreme politeness code, with legal enforcement. Furthermore, it is recognisable simply as a repeat/reinstallation of the Victorian Values system, which was itself a totalitarian system of “politeness” and “decency” and so on. As such, PC is simply a Second Wave.

      Its enforcers have learned not to look like Mary Whitehouse et al (she was the last of the First Wave Feminists) and switched from a justification based on their perception of “Christian” values to a mangled form of Marxism. But the basic nature of the thing is identical.

      The stifling nightmare of the Victorian social code- which also had considerable legal enforcement in terms of “decency” etc- is that moral extermity is perniciously destructive of citizens’ liberty. The memory of the FIrst Wave is now so long ago that we have forgotten that lesson and have been dragged into another go around the mulberry bush with this Second Wave which we call PC. He who does not learn the lesson of history is doomed to repeat it, and all that.

      • “it is recognisable simply as a repeat/reinstallation of the Victorian Values system, which was itself a totalitarian system of “politeness” and “decency” and so on.”

        I would argue that it’s also a status system, i.e.: “I am well-versed in PC etiquette, therefore I am more superior and deserving than you.” ;-)

      • You may be correct about Victorian social norms, but I think you are missing the point that all societies have rules of behaviour and speech, and you are running the risk of confusing state coercion with voluntary social action.

        The only concern for a libertarian is that violence – by the state or others – should not be initiated against individuals in order to enforce such rules. It is one thing to say that making racist remarks (for instance) should not be prohibited by law, but it does not follow that individuals who object to racism cannot censure or disassociate themselves from those who make such remarks.

        • I think politics would be a much healthier place if people focused more on what politicians DO rather than on the occasional gaffe or insignificant remark.

          Bloom was a breath of fresh air after so much walking on eggshells.

  8. I think that what most UKIP supporters would like to see is ‘competence’ rather than ‘professionalism’, if by ‘professionalism’ it means ingratiating itself and absorbing itself into the same stale mechanics and language of the state.

    This ingratiating process (and blindly folding into the ‘norms’ determined to be “professional”) would make UKIP just another bunch of stuffy suits pushing out the same ‘safe’ talk, the same values, the same tippy-toeing to the “same old same old” constraints that we dissenters often call out as being the stifling Cultural Marxist compliance over societal discourse.

    Political correctness is a tool of this thought compliance, through the usage of words (or lack of them), which makes other ideological positions hard to argue or even be thought about properly, as the vocabulary and arguments upon which they rest are airbrushed from society and conscience.

    In addition, it is an effect where more talk is generated over the “lack of compliance” than the actual point the speaker or writer was making. This is not the fault of the speaker, because everybody knows what Mr Bloom meant, otherwise they would not have been offended by it. If it is clear what was meant, then the word has done its job of conveyance. It was not foul mouthed or otherwise ‘nastily’ intended. Anybody with half a brain should understand that.

    (Political correctness is not a mere case of an extension of being “polite”, in my opinion).

    The problem with UKIP and Mr Bloom is that the media and opposition parties are bedded tightly into these strangleholds – and they love to manufacture fake shock-horror narratives about what has been said, particularly when they feel they can damage their opponents by creating a sense in society that their voters ought to be ‘shamed’ by it.

    For most people I would think there is little wrong with “Bongo Bongo Land” – other than the pressure to conform to perceived/mock ‘outrage’ and to perhaps massage their egos as being somehow more “pure” or “virtuous” than those people being made out to be “beyond the pale” or “fringe” for saying it.

    Like peacocks showing their plume, people do like to parade their holier than-thou credentials to the dominant narratives of society, particular ones that show how “tolerant” they are and “liberal” they are, because that is what is seen in society to be synonymous with “goodness” – whether the ultimate outcomes of their “tolerant” and “liberal” virtues are actually horrific and detrimental or not.

    Anyone who heard the full speech/clip of Mr Bloom (and the now famous “sluts” comment) knew it was a laugh and a joke amongst their membership. The media relished in taking it out of context and ran with it for their own purposes. This is where UKIP get into a problem by playing the game of politics in a system so stacked against it.

    They can either conform to those people who take it upon themselves to be offended on the behalf of others, those who like to be the arbiters of what should or should not be allowed to be said, and thus fit into that aforementioned “professionalism” (by which we mean “conformity” to pre-set standards which have been constructed by UKIP’s ideological opponents)……or risk the wrath of these people and continue to be somewhat non-compliant ‘outsiders’.

    The Conservative party has played this game since the 1970′s – allowing itself to be defined and led by the nose by the forces in opposition to the party.

    This has led to a long series of capitulation on almost all of their traditional moral platforms. They talk in politically correct speak, they put their policies out in ‘liberal’ terms of “helping the poor” or whatever language they feel would give them acceptance to the electorate (and the opposition less room in which to manoeuvre).

    It is this long role of capitulation that has given birth to UKIP in the first place…… so it would be somewhat tragic to watch UKIP slowly fall into the same trappings.

    If they are inept as a party, as in, having a lack of competence, then the combination of “rough edge” ‘naughty school boy’ type behaviour will only further the opposition narrative that they are “clowns and fruit-bats” (or whatever it was).

    However, if they can “do the job” expected of them, better explain their concepts and why they hold them, then they should be able to carry a dissenting narrative forward on the back of it.

  9. Well said Mr Briton.

  10. PS it was ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’.

  11. Pingback: UKIP: no longer a libertarian party? | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG