Book reviews: Office Politics & Bretton Woods

Written by David Ruffley MP and Keith Simpson MP on 8 May 2013 in Culture
Book reviews of Office Politics & The Battle of Bretton Woods

This article is from the May 2013 issue of Total Politics

by Oliver James  

Vermilion, £20

Review by David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmonds

“Learn to deal with toxic and over-promoted colleagues,” is this best-selling author’s central claim – and it should be of more than cursory interest to the average jobbing backbencher. And while it contains some entertaining observations, this is a work of pop psychology, not of deep insight.

First, we’re told about “The Psychopath”. He is superficially charming, impulsive, thrill-seeking, lacking in both conscience and empathy, and it’s easy for him to defenestrate colleagues because he’s never weighed down by remorse or guilt.  Josef Stalin and Robert Maxwell are cited as exemplars of this pathology. Apparently one per cent of the general population exhibit psychopathic traits.

Next, we have “The Machiavel”.  This character is cold, calculating, manipulative, ruthless but not without a degree of charm – according to the author, that would include Lord Mandelson and Henry Kissinger. Finally, “The Narcissist” possesses a sense of entitlement and grandiosity, has a superior manner, is self-promoting and expects others to do things for him/her. This tendency to “big up” often leads to them claiming credit for other people’s ideas. American research, the author claims, shows that the numbers of Machiavels are increasing; in 1980 15 per cent of American undergraduates displayed these characteristics, but in 2006 it was 24 per cent. 

There then follows an interesting possible explanation of the emergence of these stereotypes. More people fit these character types – or display elements of all three – now compared with 30 years ago. When a bigger proportion of the workforce worked on production lines, everyone knew where they stood and output could be measured objectively – “How many widgets did you produce today? – but now that more workers are in the professional or service sectors, it’s harder to assess someone’s worth or contribution. Hence the rise of “social skills” in recent times, by which you must make yourself likeable if you want to get on. In an office, we’re told, how you’re perceived is vastly more important than what you actually produce. Appearance is all.

Which skills do you need to succeed at office politics, where the world increasingly takes you at your own estimation? You need four of them, apparently: “Astuteness”: learn how to “read” the boss, find out what he wants and what the organisation expects of you. “Effectiveness” enables you to execute your goal of becoming useful to your superiors. “Networking” is about schmoozing people inside and outside your office, building your own reputation and increasing your chances of a better job somewhere else. Finally, “appear sincere”; if you exude integrity, you’ll be trusted more.

So far, so trite. Much of this is self-evident to the average politico, but James offers some other insights that may prompt them to look afresh at some of their Westminster colleagues. Some in their work life become “impostors”; these individuals consciously – or unconsciously – adopt the manners and behaviour of cultural types: the sporty bloke, the “Bertie Wooster” figure, “ex-Army”, the “farmer type”. It’s an interesting party game to work out which imposture well-known politicians have adopted. I can think of several on both frontbenches.

There’s also a good analysis of something called “chameleonism”, which is where a minion deliberately mirrors a superior’s verbal tics, speech patterns and hand gestures. Copying the mannerisms of your boss is a form of ingratiation, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This phenomenon – the “Mini-Me” – is, of course, in evidence among the ranks of MPs struggling up the greasy pole. David Miliband did a pretty good job of aping Tony Blair, and there are several dextrous exponents of “chameleonism” on the current frontbench, though I’m far too much of a party loyalist to name them. We all know who they are.

If you do not like self-help books, this one won’t change your mind, but for those involved in politics it contains useful checklists of the pathologies that we encounter in Parliament. How many do you have in your office?

The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order

by Benn Steil

Princeton University Press, £19.95

Review by Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland, PPS to the foreign secretary

In 2008 as the world was engulfed in the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, both Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown evoked the memory of Bretton Woods, and a rethink of the world financial system. They were joined in 2009 by the governor of The People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, who argued that instability was caused by the absence of a true international currency.

Benn Steil, a distinguished American economist and writer, has gone behind the myths of Bretton Woods and written a provocative, lively and perceptive book that pulls together economics, politics, diplomacy and history and relates it to our current crisis. At its centre is the international conference held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in the US in July 1944, which created the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and what’s now the World Trade Organization. The conference was dominated by John Maynard Keynes, the British economist representing the UK Treasury, and Harry Dexter White, who effectively represented the US Treasury and masterminded the agenda and the final agreements. This was a titanic struggle between a powerful US and a bankrupt British Empire, both different in background and temperament. Keynes was from a comfortable English academic establishment background, intellectually famous and the first real celeb academic. White, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, had struggled through hard work and cultivating powerful New Dealers to reach an influential position in the US Treasury.

From the period before the conference, Steil shows that Keynes changed his negotiating stance and overestimated his intellectual ability to persuade the Americans to accept the British position. The author demonstrates that, by 1944, the British Empire was not in a position to negotiate as an equal with the US. The British had been bankrupted by two world wars, and there was little that meant much to Roosevelt or Morgenthau, the US Treasury secretary, in the so-called ‘special relationship’. Just as Churchill found over many years it was impossible to move FDR into an emotional commitment, so Keynes never succeeded in engaging Morgenthau. This stark relationship is all too often missing from British histories of the Second World War and has to be taken into account when considering the strategic and operational disagreements between US General Marshall and UK General Alanbrooke.

The brutal fact was that the US was dollar-rich, holding all the cards, and at Bretton Woods forced through agreements that effectively ended British monetary dominance and broke the trade tariffs and advantages of the Empire. Did a bankrupt Britain have an alternative to total surrender at Bretton Woods? Given that it needed short-term financing, Steil suggests the alternative could have been devaluation and short-term loans on the open markets.

Both Keynes and White died of heart attacks within two years of the summit, Keynes through work, travel and stress, White through stress brought on by investigations into his long-term leaking of government documents and information to the Soviet Union. The structures created by Bretton Woods continue but have failed to meet the new challenges as the US and China struggle to come to terms with a new debtor/creditor relationship.

This book should be read by George Osborne, Ed Balls, the new governor of the Bank of England and Andrew Tyrie, the grand inquisitor of the Treasury select committee.

Tags: Battle of Bretton Wood, Book Reviews, Issue 58, Life, Office politics

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