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Home | 2018 | February

The Peter Principle – May extension

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2018-02-01 07:34. Updated on UTC 2018-02-24

This month, February 2018, marks 49 years since the first publication of Laurence J. Peter's (1919-1990) book The Peter Principle, which set out to explain the astonishingly high level of incompetence that we all meet in everyday life. The book became an immediate bestseller and the Peter Principle passed into folklore. Seems like only yesterday.

Despite the book's widespread appeal and massive readership, we get the impression nowadays that in the intervening half-century the high level of incompetence has not declined – on the contrary, it has probably increased, thanks, most likely, to the helpful role of computers in making humans faster and more efficient at their incompetence and giving them many more things about which they can be incompetent. That baleful invention, the technical support call-centre, has even institutionalised incompetence.

The popularity of the Peter Principle arises from its clear statement and seductively obvious validity: the personnel in any organization are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Well, everyone's had a boss like that. In the end, it could be argued, most of the upper echelons of an organization are staffed with the currently incompetent.

Peter dotted his works with many examples of this iron principle. One that sticks in my memory – although I can't remember from which of his books I got it – was the fable of the skilful pizza-maker who was overwhelmed with customers for his wonderful products. He was successful, opened a second outlet, then a third until he was finally presiding over a chain of outlets – which was the time that it went bankrupt. He was a gifted pizza maker, but a useless manager. People do things well or competently and are rewarded by promotion or success until they reach the level at which they are incompetent and no longer successful.

Laurence Peter assumed in his first book that their level of incompetence was where these incompetents ultimately remained, to continue clogging up the organization until they departed. It was obvious to everyone that these people were incompetent and no more promotions came their way, unless the promotion was intended to render the incompetent harmless.

Extending the Peter Principle

However, with its fiftieth birthday coming up, the Peter Principle needs to be extended to cover a further possibility: people who, despite their obvious incompetence, keep being promoted to ever higher levels and ever higher degrees of incompetence. Looking back, Laurence Peter's work underestimated the lack of rationality which confronts us in modern times – hence the need for this extension. Let's call it the Theresa May extension to the Peter Principle – Peter-May, for short.

This extension probably applies mainly to the field of politics. This fact should not surprise us since the ability to perform tasks effectively is low down on the list of the characteristics that get a politician elected. In most UK constituencies and most US electoral areas, whether a politician is elected or not is largely a result of their party allegiance.

Competence is not a skill that is particularly valued in government. In the UK, once on the first step of a ministerial career, politicians have civil servants to be (sort of) competent for them. The politician is merely expected to be personable, not to alienate too many voters and to be able to dissemble spontaneously on any subject without actually lying.

Theresa May: the path to mediocrity

Our extension of the Peter Principle has been given Theresa May's name in recognition of her rapid, competence-free rise to the very peak of government in the UK. Starting from a low base and with only mediocre brainpower she has risen through the ranks of the Conservative Party and today is Prime Minister. Her abilities were never tested, despite the many signs of deep-seated incompetence. Let's look at that ascent.

In her early career May read Geography at St Hugh's, a mediocre subject at a mediocre Oxford college and gained a mediocre degree. Saying this is not being snobbish – there are plenty of people who go on to great things even without any university education. It's just that her grey higher education is strangely fitting for May's character and later career.

She worked at the Bank of England for six years doing something or other which no one knows or cares about and which made no impact on anything whatsoever. During this time, in 1980, she married Philip May. She then worked at something else equally impact-free for the Association for Payment Clearing Services (?) for seven years (1985-1997).

Neither of these jobs seems to have led to a position that is worth mentioning. We hear nothing of promotions or anything like the sort of achievements or distinctions one would write down proudly in a CV.

From 1986-1994, in tandem with her PCS job, she served as a councillor in the London Borough of Merton. This is also a post that requires no ability whatsoever. Eight years in a political quinquereme, rowing to the beat of someone else's drum. In the early 1990s she had a crack as Conservative candidate in two hopeless Labour seats with predictable results – just more political grind. Is it fair to say that the last thing anyone who was even remotely competent in a real-world job would do is to go into politics?

Finally, however, she hit the political jackpot: she became the candidate for the very safe Conservative seat of Maidenhead and was elected as an MP at the 1997 general election. After that great stroke of good fortune she has never looked back.

Theresa May: the shadow climbs the stairs

In 1997 the Conservatives were swept out of power by the Blair landslide and would remain out of power for 13 years. All Theresa May's positions during this period were shadow positions, with no responsibility for anything. From bitter experience the British public has come to expect little from government ministers. From shadow ministers nothing at all is expected. She had the great good fortune not only to be the candidate in a safe seat but to be elected into a party that would be out of power for 13 years.

The 1997 election had been such a disaster for her party that the little fish that was newbie Theresa was now swimming in a much reduced pond. After that head start, her good fortune continued. Whereas the majority of new MPs may typically linger on the backbenches for years, some never even getting near a ministerial post, Theresa May got her first shadow ministerial job within months of the election. It only took a year before she got a shadow cabinet post, the first MP from the dramatically reduced 1997 intake to do so.

In those years out of power she rose relentlessly through nine jobs. She was never in any job much longer than a year and thus had little opportunity to expose her lack of talent. They were shadow jobs and as such they were never testing. She had to make the odd harmless speech, but even so famously managed to brand her own party with an epochal, unforced insult in a prepared speech: the 'Nasty Party'. Despite that clanger, she experienced altogether a total of 13 years of continual promotion.

Theresa May: mediocrity at the Home Office

In 2010, when the Tories came to power again, she got her first taste of real government as the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality. The post of Home Secretary is the third highest position in government after the Prime Minister. After achieving nothing politically for 13 years – apart from dropping the odd clanger and wearing striking shoes – she now took the stage as the third highest ranked minister in the Government.

In the position of Home Secretary – never the simplest job, the Home Office being once famously described by one of her predecessors as 'not fit for purpose' – she lasted six years. She would eventually become the longest serving Home Secretary for 60 years.

The glass-half-full types will tell us this as though it were something to her credit, the glass-half-empty types will point out that in the coalition government of the time, there was nothing else that could be done with her. Sacking a minister in one of the great offices of state is a dangerous move, all the more so in that shaky coalition. Theresa May had great job security.

She needed it, too. Her six years before the mast as Home Secretary can only be described as a time of bungling mediocrity. There was much fussing about this and that, arguments about repatriations and many other low-level calamities. Her tendency to bossiness comes clearly into view: she was reprimanded on several occasions by the courts for high-handed and illegal actions. On the major, strategic questions, nothing happened. When anything went wrong the implication always was that she had been let down by her civil servants, by the unions, by quangos and so on.

David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, foolishly promised sweeping reductions in immigration numbers which were never delivered. It was her task to implement this promise, yet nothing whatsoever happened. In this failure she prepared the ground well for the rise of UKIP and all that would follow from that.

Neglecting this key strategic policy requirement she busied herself with mismanaged trivia. Even the system for issuing passports – the most bureaucratic and non-political administrative system – broke down under completely foreseeable circumstances. The Border Force, another of her fiefdoms, became a byword for mismanagement and incompetence. Her answer to the great strategic problem of illegal immigration was to put large posters on the side of vans depicting people in handcuffs together with a text telling illegal immigrants to 'go home or face arrest'. She had the posters driven around immigrant-rich areas – an action that lasted not much longer than a day.

In Peter Principle terms, this is a person who benefited from unchallenging times to rise up rapidly through an organization, her abilities untested. When they finally were tested she had become so senior in a shaky coalition that it was impossible to get rid of her. In addition, disposing of your flagship high-flying woman was anyway a big no-no. Whether feminist affirmative action had helped her onto and up the ladder during the years of her ascent – well, who is knowledgeable or brave enough to work that out now?

Then came the Brexit referendum, about which topic she had no firm opinion one way or another but was generally for Remain. When the job of prime minister unexpectedly became available the three other main contenders self-destructed in one way or another, leaving her to breeze through the first and second ballots. Her opponent on the final ballot, Andrea Leadsom, resigned before the vote was held, meaning that May won without even having to face the vote of Conservative MPs. It was a coronation, not an election.

The veteran Conservative politician Norman Tebbit shook his head in bewilderment at the election of May:

Somehow, the words success and failure seem to have lost their meaning. To have turned an immigration target of less than 100,000 a year into an achievement of over 330,000 year and caused the once solidly Conservative ranks of the Police to hate the Tory party are deemed successes. To have been on the losing side in a referendum is not a qualification for the highest office.

Theresa May: wafted by a favouring gale

She had gone from her position of incompetence as Home Secretary to an even higher position of incompetence as Prime Minister. That is why the Peter Principle requires the Peter-May extension. Everything that has happened since that moment has only served to confirm her dimness and incompetence.

A quite remarkable aspect of her personality is her obvious inability or unwillingness to consult with others, particularly those with different opinions or more experience. After her 'Nasty Party' speech, the question was not 'why did she say that', but 'why did no one stop her saying that?' Ever since, this question has posed itself again and again after each of the many stupid things she has said.

Around nine months after becoming prime minister she called a snap general election as a strange, unforced gamble. Well, it is the sort of gamble that politicians can make, but Mrs May's conduct of the campaign was beyond incompetent. She went to the electorate as a personality cult – she had vans and buses painted with 'Theresa May', which was fine in her constituency but pointless in the other 649 of them. Even Winston Churchill never tried that. Some Tory MPs only survived because they ignored her campaign and ran their own. The election results were disastrous, she emerged as the head of a minority government supported by the DUP, the party of Northern Ireland separatists. Ever since then, almost every day has been a 'why is she still here?' moment.

She recently allowed expectations to build up in the media about a great reshuffle of ministerial jobs. Weeks of unmanaged speculation and hype culminated in a couple of days of no meaningful change at all, with some ministers even flatly refusing to change their jobs. One minister, Priti Patel, was recalled in flights across continents tracked by the media in order to be sacked, but was then allowed to resign.

Theresa May recently went to the WEF at Davos and lectured the assembled 'thought-leaders' not on Brexit, or the coming role in the world of the soon-to-be sovereign UK but on the need for governments to have 'backdoors' in encrypted data. She runs down her current shopping list of measures: the need to give robots morals, the need to imprison business fatcats, the need to manage the social media so we all have to be nice to each other (or else) and so on.

True, she had the misfortune to follow the headline act, Donald Trump, but it is no surprise that the hall in Davos was half empty to hear her grumbles. She got some words of support from the great man himself, which is not really surprising since, from an American viewpoint, the last thing they want to see is a Britain run by Corbyn and Co.

In the UK, she makes speeches that sound full of gravitas but which, on parsing, render up no meaning at all. Her remarks on the technocratic items of her shopping list such as internet security and artificial intelligence, demonstrate that she has not even the most basic grasp of the subject. She is a notoriously refractory interviewee who has never knowingly answered a question directly.

Theresa May: mismanaging Brexit

And how is Brexit going, that one defining process of her premiership?

No one knows. Her ministers, her MPs and the media have no idea what is happening with Brexit. She took its management entirely upon herself. The government she formed after announcing the cryptic phrase 'Brexit means Brexit' paradoxically consisted mainly of those who supported Remain.

The (alleged) Leaver Boris Johnson was appointed as Foreign Secretary, but given a rabid Remainer, Sir Alan Duncan, as his deputy. If the many mixtures of opinion were supposed to bring the government together and please everyone, the result has been built-in, permanent discord. The public, the media, other MPs, the civil service and even her ministers have only questions and uncertainties.

Are there feuding factions? Does there have to be an extension to the period of the negotiations? Will Britain have to keep paying the EU for years ahead? What will happen with the Irish border? Will there be a soft or a hard Brexit, or something in between? What will the level of immigration be? The result of the latest procedural agreement – which turned out not to be an agreement at all – was a humiliation for her and Britain, both in its process as in its result.

Within this cloud of unknowing the leaders of the EU can make speeches, make demands, forecast doom and economic disaster for the UK – in short, set their own agenda. The latest leak from Chancellor Merkel jestingly mocking the Prime Minister's lack of understanding of the Brexit process rings very true to Brexiteers in the UK still waiting for clear guidance from the incompetent who rules them.

The home-grown Remainers can mutter, grumble and sow dissent with impunity. The game is theirs. Mrs May, for her part, keeps telling us that a speech is on the way that will clear everything up. But more and more people remember all her previous speeches that were supposed to clarify things and which always ended in a fog of incomprehension, confusion and bickering.

On 30 January, in a House of Lords' debate on Brexit, Lord Bridges, the former Brexit minister George Bridges, a Leaver who left the Government's Brexit team in mid-June last year in disgust at May's handling of the Brexit negotiations, gave a speech summarising the current chaotic state of the Brexit negotiations:

Four months on and there are still no clear answers to these basic, critical questions. All we hear day after day are conflicting, confusing voices. If this continues and ministers cannot agree among themselves on the future relationship the government wants, how can this Prime Minister possibly negotiate a clear, precise heads of terms of the future relationship with the EU?

My fear is that we will get meaningless waffle in the political declaration in October. The implementation period will not be a bridge to a clear destination, it will be a gang plank into thin air. The EU will have the initiative in the second stage of the negotiatons and we shall find ourselves forced to accept a deal that gives us access to EU markets, but without UK politicians having a meaningful say over swathes of legislation and regulation.

Some may say this outcome would not be the end of the world, some may say it’s inevitable. My point today is this: at this pivotal moment in our history we cannot, we must not indulge in that very British habit of just muddling through. With under 300 working days until we leave the EU, we need to know the government’s answers to these central questions. They go to the heart of the matter, the powers of this parliament and parliamentary sovereignty.

The government must be honest with themselves and the public about the choices that we face, and then the Prime Minister and her Cabinet must make those choices. As has been said, to govern is to choose, and as we face the biggest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War, keeping every option open is no longer an option.

Guido Fawkes 30.01.2017

'The biggest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War'. Quite. Yet the contrast between Theresa May's excruciating strategic incompetence at this existential and consequential moment in British history and the clear-headedness demonstrated by one of her predecessors could not be greater.

Theresa May: stuck with her

So the Tory party is now run by an incompetent who rose untested but meteor-like through the ranks until she eventually got the top job. Her luck still holds. Given her party's precarious grip on power no one wants to throw her out and begin that long slide into the waiting abyss. The prospect is terrible: a month of internecine slaughter during which the candidates for her job call each other names and slog it out in public is a prospect for which no one in her party has an appetite – at least at the moment.

And such candidates! Hammond, the Remainer; Johnson, who goes under the stagename 'Boris'; the odious backstabber Gove; Rudd, another incompetent, currently just as obsessed with Home Office trivia as her predecessor was; Hunt, currently pretending to be in control of the out-of-control soup kitchen called the NHS; Leadsom, who crumpled at the first Twitterstorm.
– Choose one or I shoot!
– Shoot.

We might be cruel and argue that the Conservative Party deserves everything that it has brought upon itself by its reckless disregard of the Peter Principle. Let's hope that the few good MPs that are left in the party survive the political nemesis that is already on its way. Something has to happen: Theresa May cannot improve – she has a record of incompetence stretching back decades.

The Peter Principle with its new extension Peter-May has experienced a great validation in the person of Theresa May: someone who was promoted to her level of incompetence a long time ago and then promoted well beyond it and who is now stuck there because her incompetence appears to be the best solution that is on offer. There will be more bad times for Britain until she is removed.

Update 24.02.2018

Behind the paywall in the Telegraph, commensurate with his great status and deep thought, patrician Charles Moore is tapping his white stick along the kerb:

We – and Brussels – still really need to know: what is going on in Theresa May's head?

Even after Chequers, we remain in the dark. Is the PM very stupid or very clever?

The old Spitting Image joke about Margaret Thatcher is so famous that people think it actually happened. The waiter at Chequers takes Mrs Thatcher’s order. She asks for steak. “And the vegetables?” ventures the waiter. “Oh,” she says, waving dismissively towards her Cabinet colleagues, “they’ll be having the same.”

Theresa May’s method seems to be almost exactly the opposite. The “vegetables” say what they want, and try to order for her as well. She says nothing. No one knows what she wants. Her future biographer (no, I am not volunteering) will have to decide whether this technique was very deep or merely vacuous… [and there the free bit ends]

Keep going Charles – you're nearly there. Here's a hint: since 'deep' has been a word that one could never associate with Theresa May except in the context of 'thick', our advice would be to go with 'vacuous'.