Issue 208: 2019 06 27: Legacy

27 June 2019


A dirty word.

By John Watson

There you are, standing by the curbside in the City of London, when you notice an elderly man standing a little way apart from you, not looking very well.  Suddenly he pitches forward into the path of the oncoming traffic but you have good reactions and move quickly.  At some risk to yourself you jump forward, pick him up and bear him to safety on the curb, helping him to a nearby pub where he sits quietly, a glass of water completing his recovery.  He thanks you and you exchange cards.

We all know what happens next because that great poet “anon” has told us that:

“He goes home, gets out his will

and adds a grateful codicil.”

How nice, a pleasant little legacy, and well earned too.  We would all like one of those and some of us have fantasies about getting one.  Political legacies, however, are rather different and come in many shapes.  Sometimes a politician, through the sweat of his brow or exceptional creativity or political insight, produces something that will last.  Nye Bevan’s creation of the National Health Service is a spectacular example.  Disraeli’s one nation conservatism is another.  Many others, less noticeable, are still important.  Perhaps one minister has brought stability to the economy; perhaps another has improved the quality of failing schools; perhaps a third has prevented the collapse of the prison system.  Often their contribution are not widely recognised but they still made an important difference.  Those politicians may not have designed St Paul’s but they can fairly share in the epitaph on Wren’s tomb:

“Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”

(“Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you“).

Such people can fairly be described as having legacies because a real contribution has been made.  That, however, does not include trying to commit their successors to expenditure on things they wish they had done, which is why reports of disagreement between Mrs May and Mr Hammond as to future spending strike a discordant note.  Of course there are pledges which have to be given in the ordinary course of government or which are too urgent to await the coronation of a new leader.  The zero carbon target for 2050 perhaps falls into this category.  Beyond that, however, expenditure is a matter for the new administration which will set its own priorities and it is quite wrong for the acting Prime Minister to try to pre-empt it.  It must be very frustrating for Mrs May who went into politics with the praiseworthy object of making life better for the harder pressed of society, that this has been frustrated by the dominance of Brexit.  Still, that is how it has turned out and now is the moment for her to retire quietly and gracefully and leave history to judge the effect of her efforts.

But there is a broader problem with the idea of legacies which runs beyond politics into business, into the professions and into the arts.  Young people at the start of their careers are told to get out there and to make their mark, and that is generally what the most ambitious and effective of them will try to do.  The trouble is that you can only make your mark by changing things and that isn’t particularly useful unless the changes you put in place are really needed.  For a good example of this in the context of government take Andrew Lansley’s reform of the health service with its attempt to move the focus from central management to market pressures.  No one seems to think that it was a success and Jeremy Hunt and Simon Stevens have spent a great deal of time sorting out the damage.  Had Andrew Lansley not been eager to make his mark or create a legacy, he might have done nothing at all, and, if the commentators are to be believed, that would have been better.

The problem is not confined to the public sector.  Suppose a great corporation appoints a new chief executive.  Will he or she focus on developing the business, only pursuing takeovers where there are obvious synergies?  Or will there be a drive to acquire, encouraged no doubt by the fact that those managing big businesses generally get paid more than those managing smaller ones?

There are plenty of examples of both approaches but there can be no doubt that the desire to “make a mark” or “create a legacy” puts a premium on change.  It is easy to imagine how this happened as a matter of evolutionary theory, the desire for change creating a medley of different approaches out of which only the best survived.  That may still work well on the small scale where competing approaches are possible but it has no place in the world of public utilities and monopolies where steadiness and management skills are needed and changes should be thought through carefully before they are adopted.

So what should we do?  Should political and business leaders have their testosterone artificially reduced to a particular level?  Should they all be women?  Should we start a new age of Luddism in which change is a dirty word?  Well, no, none of that makes much sense, particularly when we are dependent on scientific advance to save the environment.  The only practical course is to be more sceptical of those promising change, asking whether that change is really for the better or if the aim is simply to create a legacy or personal advantage.  In the case of business the job is for non-executive directors.  In the case of politics it is for the public who need to bear in mind that those who talk of their legacies are generally contemplating putting their interests above those of the people they are supposed to be serving.  That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it?


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