by Dan Cooke
It’s the start of US presidential primary season and so, for some, the time has come to enjoy a condescending glance at the state of democracy in America.
One poll has placed the professional billionaire and front-man for the original Apprentice, Donald Trump, as joint second favourite for the Republican nomination. It seems that our transatlantic cousins, many of whom, according to the Guardian will “believe anything”, have confused the scripted certainties of the prime time boardroom for real leadership. Thank goodness it could never happen here, right?
Well, passing over the fact that our own “Mr Serious”, Gordon Brown, was inspired to appoint the poor man’s Donald Trump, Alan Sugar, as an adviser, there are deeper reasons why a sense of detached superiority would be misplaced.
The popularity of the Apprentice on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) reveals a widespread faith in the “great man” theory of business leadership. The tycoon, vindicated by success in rising to his exalted perch (particularly if, like Sugar, though not Trump, he pulled himself up from humble origins), is deemed to be the supreme arbiter on all that goes on in his own business and, possibly beyond. He may not actually owe his success to facility with, say, dressing a store, locating cheap products or working in a team; like anyone else he will have a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. But, as the boss, he has carte blanche to decide what is bad and what is good in any of these and other areas.
And it’s not just because snap judgments on random tasks make good TV. Most people who have worked in a large organisation will know what it’s like when the diktat comes down from on high that something needs to change in a certain way – even when it’s sadly obvious that the higher authority doesn’t understand the impact.
There is something pre-modern about this idea of the Solomon-like leader, able to find the right answer in any situation. In an increasingly specialized world, no boss can really understand everything that will impact on the success of their goals. Good management should consist in large part of knowing how to delegate effectively and when to take advice. But it doesn’t always work like that and, in its own small way, the Apprentice fosters a different idea of leadership.
So a certain proportion of the American electorate may see Donald Trump as the guy they can trust to make the right call in the White House even if he never thought about many of the issues before. By contrast, in the UK, one might think we could pass a rare vote of thanks for the professionalisation of politics. We are governed by individuals who have generally spent years working on their humility, picking up some policy knowledge and, crucially, living through numerous shifts in their party’s policy too. So we might expect an administration that understands there is rarely a simple answer, is cautious of jumping to precipitous conclusions, consults widely before introducing dramatic changes and respects expert advice.
Yet in this of all weeks, after the shambles of the coalition’s climb-down on health and its continued disarray in describing what will happen next, it is painfully obvious that such enlightened political leadership is only a distant hope.
And in David Cameron we have a prime minister who runs his administration just like a know-it-all chairman who has just taken over the family business. The word has gone out to the underlings that the boss does not plan to put in long hours in the office. But when the mood takes him he will wonder around the shop floor to tell the workers what they’re doing wrong – or haul them into his office for a lecture.
In the corporate world, the chaos and climb-downs that can result when the boss overestimates his understanding of the detail often remain a guilty secret between him and his underlings. But in the political arena it is cruelly exposed for all to see, as Chairman Dave is now finding out.
Last month he claimed that even his baby daughter could tell civil servants what “ridiculous” regulations had to be repealed. Yet this month, while the mandarins wait for instructions from the Cameron household, the public have had to be roped in to help out instead. The serial policy U-turns of the government are a more serious sign of its tendency to over-confidence and under-preparation.
So if Trump does make it to the White House in two years, an older and hopefully wiser David Cameron might be in a position to give him some advice about what not to do. But if he doesn’t learn from the damage his ego has already inflicted, the prime minister may himself receive a harsh message sooner than he thinks: “you’re fired”.
Dan Cooke is a Labour lawyer and activist.