The perils of professionalism

The perils of professionalism

Libertarian Alliance, September 2013

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”[1] 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.”[2] 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”[3]. 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.