Saturday, 11 July 2015

Academic qualifications are no substitute for political experience - the case of Dr Varoufakis

This post is not really about Yanis Varoufakis. OK so it is a bit - mostly because, as tyro politicians go, he is the owner of the most incredible sense of destiny (some might describe this as an ego larger than Greece). However, Dr Varoufakis is the owner of a splendid set of qualifications - degrees in economics and statistics culminating in an economics doctorate from the University of Essex. - and an established and successful academic career. Various folk have drawn a flattering comparison between Dr Varoufakis and what we might term his 'opponents' (and Dr V did spend a year or two as a consultant to a gaming company).

The question we need to ask here is whether Dr Varoufakis' undoubted academic success is in any way an indicator that he would make a successful politician or government minister? And, indeed, to ask the much wider question as to what sort of qualification, background or experience makes for a good political leader. All this is in the context of Dr Varoufakis showing himself to be a very poor political leader indeed.

My qualification in all this is that I've spent most of a lifetime - best part of 40 years - in and around the business of politics. And I am convinced that the core skills of a successful political leader cannot be captured through looking at either previous (or parallel) careers or in higher academic qualifications. Nor is owning a brain comparable to Marvin's a sufficient qualification especially since higher academic qualifications reflect a very narrow interest - a doctorate in economics reflects research in a specific and tightly-drawn field not a generalist expertise in economics itself.

Academic excellence - at the level we are talking about with Dr Varoufakis - isn't an indicator that, placed in the world of political decision-making, an individual will succeed. This is because, in the grubby world of practical politics, there isn't a right answer, nor even an answer that can be successfully modelled. The problem with academics (especially in social science subjects like economics) is that they really do believe the answer can be worked out. The truth is (as us old hands know) that the decision will be made in the end on the basis of a mix between expert briefing, electoral or political calculation and gut feel.

Dr Varoufakis went from being an academic who briefly advised a government to being a minister. This would have been OK if Greece had been in a normal situation - plenty of time to learn the ropes, to discover how the political game works - but sadly for that country, it wasn't. Indeed Greece faced a huge challenge and crisis, partly of its own making and partly a consequence of decisions made elsewhere in Europe. From the outside it seems that Dr Varoufakis strode into the meetings wrapped in his own confidence and the electoral mandate from Greece. The problem was that, as Dr V discovered quickly, his 'opponents' were not impressed with his academic achievements - to them he was a baby politician to be toyed with, confronted and taught a lesson. And the mandate of Greek voters matters to Greek politicians not their counterparts in Germany, Holland or Belgium - such politicians care about the German, Dutch and Flemish voters not voters in Athens.

It could be that the analysis from Dr Varoufakis and his colleagues was spot on. But the tactics adopted were almost guaranteed to ensure Dr V and co lost the argument. Fancy media coverage, confrontational speeches and ultimata all have their place in politics but when faced with a stony-faced and negative response to such grandstanding the proper response isn't to indulge in more of it but to start on the boring task of seeking compromise and consensus. To succeed at this you need those political skills that Dr Varoufakis so clearly lacks. The Greek government - newly elected and excited - placed huge responsibility for the national future in the hands of a man with less political experience than the average parish councillor. And his opponents ate him alive - costing Greece the chance of a decent deal and a chance to get out from under its crisis.

Just as many of my colleagues on the right of politics seem obsessed with getting business leaders into politics (despite the appalling track record for such people), many on the left are captivated by academics like Dr Varoufakis. Yet the evidence for academics succeeding as politicians is just as lacking as that for businessmen. Politics is a business filled with particular skills and behaviours that aren't learnt in grad school - this isn't to say that politicians aren't brainy but that their success can't be predicted on the basis of how many higher degrees they've got or what class they achieved in their first degree. Compare the qualifications of Matteo Renzi with those of Dr Varoufakis and you begin to understand that political achievement rests on something other than those exam results.

Because you don't need anything other than a sufficiency of votes to become a politician, we seldom consider that politics is a business requiring a distinct set of skills and attributes. I spend a lot of time reminding colleagues that we are politicians and should act politically - not just because of the currency of votes but because political decision-making is very different from decision-making in business. And the same applies to negotiation, leadership and marketing - some of the skills transfer but the core business of politics is conducted in front of audiences that react differently to business audiences and which are contrary rather than co-operative.

Debate between academics can be very vigorous but, in the end, it is about the content of academic research. The same goes for business negotiation. But for politicians there is no audience that wants debate for the sake of debate and many audiences who want to pull the politician down rather than support them (we see these in both political opponents and in the media - even supposedly friendly media). The academic robustness of your case and the quality of your presentation mean nothing to the 'opponent' who wants you to fail. To succeed such opposition has to be neutralised.

The Syriza government in Greece might have been better served appointing a horny-handed old trade unionist as finance minister - a person who could get drunk with the Germans, eat with the French and hug the Belgians: an operator. And then used Dr Varoufakis' undoubted talents as a thinker about the economy to provide the bullets for that operator to fire. Instead Dr V managed to irritate bureaucrats and upset politicians making it all the more difficult for Greece to make its case for further support on Syriza's terms rather than on Angela Merkel's. I've no doubt that the main reason wasn't Dr Varoufakis' ego, lack of tie or motor bike but his almost complete lack of political experience.

Many may not like politicians and politics but when the crunch comes, we really need experienced politicians (you can call them statesmen if you want to watch them preen) to deal with the dirty business of politics. And just being clever - in book larnin' terms - is not a sufficient qualification to do that business. Dr Varoufakis is a case study of the consequences that stem from this mistake.


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