The first thing the best boss I ever had told me was ‘if you make a mistake, tell me as soon as you can. That way we can find a solution.’ It’s a piece of advice that has always stuck with me – and I’ve tried my best to learn from it. I can’t always follow my own advice because, after all, I’m human. And that’s really the point. We all make mistakes – I know I’ve made some absolute stinkers, and some which have had significant consequences, though none quite on the scale of Tony Blair. The question is, what do we do about it? What can we learn from our mistakes? Over the last week or so, three of our politicians – Tony Blair, Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson have shown exactly how not to do it, in their own particular way.
Tony Blair is the worst of the lot, of course. His mistakes have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and will cost many, many more. They’ve destabilised the planet, fuelled and fostered hate and extremism, and left a mess which it’s hard to see any way out of. And yet, even now, he doesn’t do the first and most important thing: recognise that he’s even made a mistake. That’s the first lesson I learned from my boss – you have to see what you’ve done, be willing to admit that it’s a mistake, and then try to solve it. If you can’t even accept that you might have made a mistake – and that’s where Tony seems to be – there’s no chance of solving it. Indeed, Tony seems to have spent most of his career since sending the troops in trying to prove that he was right. Even now, it looks as though it’s all about that for him. He wants us to intervene militarily again in Iraq – and it’s hard not to conclude that his primary reason is to show us that we’re all wrong, and he was right all along. How many more will have to suffer for his ego?
Boris Johnson takes it to the next stage. Writing in the Telegraph, he describes Tony Blair as ‘unhinged’. It’s very hard to argue with Boris’s analysis of Tony:
“In discussing the disaster of modern Iraq he made assertions that are so jaw-droppingly and breathtakingly at variance with reality that he surely needs professional psychiatric help.”
Boris’s piece is an excellent piece of writing – he takes apart not only Tony Blair but the whole intervention in Iraq. His conclusion is excellent:
“Somebody needs to get on to Tony Blair and tell him to put a sock in it – or at least to accept the reality of the disaster he helped to engender. Then he might be worth hearing. The truth shall set you free, Tony.”
There are, however, a couple of problems with Boris’s analysis. Firstly, Boris doesn’t mention that he himself did not just vote for the invasion of Iraq, but advocated it very directly, speaking in Parliament in support of the action. He takes some responsibility for the decision, but not much. He, just like Tony, had the opportunity to listen to the people who opposed the war. He, just like Tony, could have wondered if the million+ who marched in London in opposition to the war, might, just possibly, have a point. He, just like Tony, could have wondered what the great haste to invade was, and could have asked us to wait for Hans Blix to report. He didn’t. Instead, he drummed the drums of war almost as much as Tony.
Secondly, and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to have learned the second, and most important lesson from the mistakes of Iraq. That is that we all make mistakes and we make them a lot of the time – and so we should be aware, at all times, that what we are doing might be a mistake. We should learn a little humility. We should be ready, at any time, to step back and say ‘hey, I might be wrong about this.’ Boris, like so many politicians, doesn’t seem to be able to make this step. The step of saying ‘I’m not sure,‘ or ‘I might be wrong’.
On a very different scale, he’s involved in a decision like this right now – about buying water cannon for the Metropolitan Police. He’s pushing the purchase through, not even waiting for official approval from Theresa May. He’s not willing to listen to those who oppose the idea. He’s not willing to consider that he might be wrong. He’s not really learned the lessons of Tony Blair and Iraq at all. Now of course water cannon in the London streets are worlds apart from invading Iraq – but there are similarities in principle. Can Boris learn? It seems unlikely, because our whole political culture – and Boris is steeped in that culture – makes the idea of realising that you’ve made a mistake, being able to admit it and hence really learn from it, almost impossible. Which brings me to Ed…
Ed Miliband’s mistake was to pose for a photo-shoot holding up a copy of the Sun. Variants of the picture have become a bit of a meme on the internet – my version is here, but you can find many, many different versions around. Ed’s mistake(s) are not on Boris’s scale, let alone Tony’s, but they do make me wonder about how politicians work. To pose with the Sun at any time is a risky matter for a Labour politician. To pose now is particularly foolish – as Ed, or at least Ed’s advisers, should have known. It’s not just that it’s the World Cup (which was the point of the photo-shoot), but that at this World Cup the England team has a huge contingent of Liverpool players. The captain (Gerrard), the main goalscorer (Sturridge), the young hope (Sterling) to start with. Ed’s advisers should have known that this is the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. That the Hillsborough inquests are happening right now. That this has been the best season for Liverpool for two decades. All of this makes it not just sensitive but super-sensitive. It means that Ed’s photo-shoot was catastrophically ill judged….
…but we all make mistakes, as I said at the start. The question is what we do next. In Ed’s case, what he should have done next is make a proper apology. Not a half-arsed ‘sorry if you got offended’ apology, which doesn’t help either way, but a simple, straightforward and honest apology. To be unable to make such an apology – something along the lines of ‘sorry, I made a big mistake, an error of judgment’ – suggests that, just like Tony and Boris, Ed has not been able to even really acknowledge the mistake that he made. He just wants to ‘manage’ the situation. ‘Managing’ the situation doesn’t solve the problem. People are still upset. Their upset will come up again and again, particularly after the half-arsed apology.
In a way, it’s not about Tony, Boris or Ed. It’s about a culture where we can’t be seen to be weak. We can’t admit that we’ve made a mistake – even though we all know we make mistakes – and so we can’t really do what’s needed to solve them. I wish it were different, but even to admit that it’s a mistake not to admit mistakes is beyond our political culture it seems. That in itself is very sad.