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“I take full responsibility” and other ramblings on British politics.

Politicians in the UK are not a popular bunch. From expenses to plebgate, the British political class seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, deploying the same pre-fabricated scandal response package with each successive mishap. Overall, this creates an environment in which politicians are so toxic that nobody has any interest in defending them. Personally, I have some sympathy. I often struggle to get my point across and avoid saying something potentially hurtful one-on-one to people I have known for years; trying to do the same thing for sixty million people – most of whom you have never met – is a monstrously difficult and utterly thankless task.

All-in-all, this is a situation that suits nobody. It harms democracy, in that even good intentions are often taken as bad simply because nobody has any trust for the messenger. If you appear to be concealing something, that naturally invites speculation regarding exactly what you are concealing and why. Put into an atmosphere of general mistrust, this invites wild and negative speculation about true motives and intentions, and raises suspicion not just about what the politician in question has said in the past and says in the future, but the past and future comments of all politicians. The inability or unwillingness of the political class to deal with these problems is, frankly, infuriating.

You wouldn’t tolerate it in a five-year-old

At times, politicians being interviewed come across as though they were a five-year-old being quizzed about some instance of naughty behaviour. If you ask a five-year-old whether their room is tidy and they answer “my room has maintained a good level of tidiness over the past three weeks” (supposing, in this alternate universe, that most five-year-olds are media trained), you know full well that they haven’t tidied their room. Not only is it barely fooling anybody, but it’s insulting everybody who sees past the fairly shallow ruse. Avoiding answering fairly simple questions is really not that clever, yet by employing this very basic technique, politicians communicate several things.

Firstly, they communicate that they aren’t willing to answer the question. If this is the case, they should probably just say. If they’re worried about the soundbite, they should realise that a journalist determined to put a spin on an interview will probably be able to do so by selectively quoting them. For people watching the interview, however, a simple “I’m not answering that” is less cloyingly awkward than some contrived misdirection. Secondly, and somewhat by definition, they communicate that they think the technique they are employing will actually work. When people see through it, which they will at least some of the time, they will rightly feel like they are being taken for idiots. Thirdly, they implicitly communicate that, to some degree, they don’t consider the question worthy of answering, which is dangerous when some people will feel that the question deserves a response.

People are lied to all the time by all manner of people. As such, we get really rather good at spotting dishonesty. From kids, to colleagues, to partners, people are almost unnervingly good at identifying duplicity, even in those we have never met. In addition to this, dishonesty is an almost universally disliked quality. Nobody likes those who are trying to deceive them, and when the default form of political communication is oddly contrived deceit, this is a huge problem for the credibility of the system as a whole. By contrast, people are actually very used to disagreeing with others, and the vast majority of people basically accept this as an unavoidable fact of daily life. In my view, politicians ought to stop being so afraid of disagreeing with people; I find myself far more amenable to a straight-talking Conservative MP than someone like Peter Mandleson, a Labour politician who seems to find speaking honestly about as easy as fish find walking.

Fake apologies

It’s not just the blatant avoidance of difficult questions that politicians share with youngsters. They also have a remarkable propensity to issue the kind of thoroughly insincere apology normally seen when a five-year-old is forced, by an adult, to apologise to another child following some kind of dispute. We’ve probably all been there, on both sides of the insincere apology, and probably also witnessed it as a third party. It’s not convincing, and there’s an air of pointlessness about the whole ceremony.

Public apologies in the UK have a weird sense of ritual to them. Firstly, the scandal will break. The party in question will say nothing for a few days, before appearing at a press conference and pretending that the events in question were the result of some strange and temporary madness and completely at odds with their actual attitudes and behaviour. Then, they will utter a curious idiomatic expression: “I take full responsibility”, which can have a number of different meanings. Occasionally, someone will actually take full responsibility for their actions. A far more common usage, however, translates roughly as “I will pretend to be responsible for this until people stop talking about it, after which I will carry on exactly as before and suffer almost no personal consequences”. Highlighting the ubiquity and meaninglessness of the phrase, one of the suggested options on Google when searching for “I take full responsibility” is “I take full responsibility meaning”.

The phrase seems to have acquired, in the minds of those who say it, some kind of scandal-washing magic powers. However, its repeated use not only makes the phrase itself somewhat farcical, but really calls into question the attitudes of those saying it. If you say that you take full responsibility for something and do not appear to either suffer any personal consequences or meaningfully institute changes, it does somewhat imply that you don’t really consider it to be that important. It would be far better, in the long run, if people only apologised for things they actually feel responsible for and plan to do something about. Otherwise, the only realistic conclusion is that they just don’t care.

PMQs: a credibility-destroying farce

Prime minister’s question time is one of the most well-known and least-liked parts of Britain’s democratic process. With the infantile, sneering put-downs, the unfathomable shouting and jeering and general school playground atmosphere, PMQs is where what is left of a politician’s credibility goes to die. It is, at times, basically unwatchable, as grown men and women attempt to drown out those speaking, while the speaker of the chamber looks like a supply teacher on the last day of term. It is a thoroughly undignified process that, to my mind, serves no identifiable purpose and does considerable harm to the image of politics and thus the democratic process itself.

Politicians must understand that when they shout down another politician, they are not just jokingly putting down someone who they can patch things up with over a (subsidised) drink at the House of Commons bar later on. What they are also doing is shouting down all the people who hold the view being shouted over, and showing contempt for that opinion. When someone agrees with a view being expressed, how are they supposed to react when another politician won’t even let a speaker finish uninterrupted? It’s unreasonable to expect all politicians to agree with you, and virtually nobody does, but it is not too much to ask that they at least respect other politicians, and more importantly those whose views they represent, and let them finish their sentences.

A sea change is needed

A common theme running through all this is that politicians need to be less afraid and more honest. They must simply accept that, in a country of sixty million people, they simply cannot make everybody happy, nor should they expect to. When they do upset people, however they should react as they would to a friend or colleague; either apologise genuinely and sincerely, highlighting what they think they did wrong or, alternatively, stand their ground, defending and explaining their actions. When the response to every single criticism is to offer an elaborate yet meaningless apology, the politicians look spineless and the system looks farcical. A sea change is needed in the way politicians communicate with the public. Instead of viewing the public with contempt and trying to avoid question and deflect criticism, politicians need to communicate in a way that makes it look like they consider the opinions of their electorate as worthy of respect.

Of course the public and the media play a role in this ridiculous circus, demanding apologies, twisting words and generally buying into the entire soap opera. However, changing the way the public and the media treat politicians is, much to their disappointment, beyond the scope of party strategists. All they can realistically change is the way their own party interact with the media and the public, and major political parties must accept (genuinely) that they bear a lot of responsibility for the toxicity of the British political system. It is a system in which someone like Ed Miliband is ruthlessly mocked for sounding a bit weird, and doesn’t feel like he can stand up and tell people doing the mocking that they’re childish bullies. He is then criticised for not knowing how much milk costs and can’t just admit that he doesn’t really do his own grocery shopping because, as the leader of the opposition, he has more important things to be doing, all the while issuing bizarre statements about how he “feels respect for white vans” or something like that.

Politicians, who clearly don’t always believe in their own apologies, look cowardly and dishonest. They appear afraid of speaking their minds. It is this that really drives the popularity of Nigel Farage. He has views, and he sticks to them. I don’t for a second doubt that Nigel Farage wants to reduce immigration, nor do I think there is any possibility of him apologising for this desire. It is this brand of honesty (or at least partial) that forms a large part of Farage’s appeal. Instead of trying to outdo Farage on immigration and Euroscepticism and continuing to lend him unnecessary political capital, the Westminster parties should try to start communicating like him, instead of acting out of fear and repeating the same meaningless clichés time after time after time.

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Manchester United and David Moyes: what went wrong?

The 10-month soap opera has drawn to an undignified end. David Moyes’s short reign at Manchester United is over, and the kings of English football for the last 2 decades look to the future with anticipation. The brand is still strong, the club is still rich and the legions of fans they have amassed the world over will stay, for a while at least. Missing out on Champion’s League football might make it harder to attract the class of players they need to reverse their fortunes, though.

However, with all signs pointing to a large turnover of players for United this summer, a lack of Champion’s League football might be something of a blessing come this time next year. While their rivals are likely to be involved at the sharp end of the Champion’s League, their stars can focus on the league, much as Liverpool have been able to do this year. They face a Chelsea side this weekend who have semi-final ties with Atletico Madrid either side of the weekend’s encounter. While Brendan Rodgers will pick his best team for Liverpool’s biggest challenge between now and the end of the season, José Mourinho faces an unenviable balancing act between domestic and European glory. Still, it is hard to view this season as anything but a failure for the club as a whole. Exactly where the blame for a disappointing season lies is less clear, and depends on a number of factors very few people outside of United really have any idea about. It’s hard to argue that Alex Ferguson left the team in good shape.

This post reviews the United squad, concluding that the defence and midfield are beset with problems. The best-case scenario for the defence is that at least two of Smalling, Jones and Evans make a step up to become world-class centre-halves, but this a long way from certain. In midfield, Januzaj and Mata are the only bright sparks, and Mata has yet to show the form that he did in his first two seasons with Chelsea.  None of this tells us why David Moyes’s year has been quite as painful as it’s turned out to be. There are several possible explanations – the truth is likely to be a combination of all of these.

It is important to note that David Moyes was not the only new face at United this year. In fact, surprisingly for a team that looked in need of an overhaul 10 months ago, there were more off-the-field changes than on-the-field changes. As well as the well-publicised retirement of manager Alex Ferguson, his brother and chief scout Martin Ferguson also retired, along with chief executive David Gill. In short, the three senior personnel responsible for player acquisition all departed at the end of last year. With a squad overhaul imminent, the wisdom of this surely has to questioned. Of course, the Gill and Martin Ferguson decisions are likely related to Alex Ferguson’s decision, but the situation is not the best for success.

A level of continuity would have benefited Moyes. Searching for the right players is not an easy process, especially not when the season is over. Moyes will have been relying on his evaluations of players from when he was at Everton and the evaluations of the United scouts. With all due respect to Everton, it’s unlikely that many players they were interested in turned up on the United radar. Completing a squad overhaul without the guidance of the former chief scout is a challenge that Moyes simply didn’t need. One also has to wonder whether, in the months prior to his retirement, Martin Ferguson will have been focused as single-mindedly on a squad overhaul as someone who knew they would be continuing with the club would do.

Similarly with the chief executive role, new man Ed Woodward has plenty of commercial experience, but not so much on the footballing side. With Moyes presumably spending most of his time frantically searching for the talent to renew his squad, the last thing he needed was any unnecessary complications in transfer negotiations. The bizarre Ander Herrera saga indicates that Woodward might have been less than the reliable presence Moyes needed. Any one of these hurdles might have been insignificant with two experienced hands to help them along, but the combination of all three proved problematic for United.

With some many holes in the squad to fill, United needed to move quickly to identify talent, bring it in at the right price and move on the improving other areas of the squad. Time after time – with Fabregas, Fellaini, Herrera, Baines and others – it was clear that the club were not operating with the fluidity and efficiency that we expect from top sides. Pursuing players who had no intention of joining, failing to take advantage of buyout clauses, non-existent offers and “insulting” offers were just some of the mistakes made by United over the summer; none of these are signs of a club operating competently in the transfer market.

When it comes to coaching, as well, there was a distinct lack of continuity. Gone were many of the experienced hands who had helped Ferguson, such as Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, and in came Moyes’ own men, such as Steve Round and Phil Neville. We don’t know precisely why this happened, whether the likes of Phelan and Meulensteen left of their own volition or were pushed out by Moyes. Of course, Moyes wanted to put his own stamp on the team, but with a 6-year contract, there was more than enough time to do this without sacrificing continuity.

The rhetoric surrounding that contract contrasts, as we can see, with the off-the-pitch reality. While United emphasised the importance of stability, they simultaneously changed many things off the field. Exactly who drove this huge raft of changes should determine where the blame lies. If Moyes insisted on overhauling everything, then he must assume much of the blame. If the changes were beyond his control, then his sacking looks increasingly unfair. If they were beyond his control, we have to ask whether more effort could have been

Even so, Moyes has never seemed like a tactical genius of a football manager. At Everton, he seemed at his finest when forcing square pegs into round holes, improvising without a striker with Cahill playing off Fellaini. His sides never really excelled against the top teams nor played with the style of, say, Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea. Roberto Martinez has taken a very similar group of players and has them playing more attractively, more creatively and more successfully. Everton’s players have spoken about Martinez’s superior tactical ability, which is damning for Moyes.

As the top seven mini table shows, David Moyes’s struggles against top sides have followed him to United. A measly six points and and one win from 12 games against the top seven is far below where United need to be. Most notably, it compares incredibly unfavourably to Roberto Martinez’s record with Everton. These struggles can be interpreted as part of David Moyes’s lack of tactical inventiveness, and a creative deficit within the midfield. While United have the sheer quality to brush past lesser opponents, when faced with players of a higher quality who are tactically more organised, they have little to offer.

All in all, the decision to hire Moyes does not look like a good one. The conditions that Moyes had to work in were certainly not ideal. If those conditions were of his own creation, then he has no-one else to blame. It seems unlikely, however, that Moyes insisted on a complete behind-the-scenes overhaul. It’s likely, however, that other figures at the club are more than happy for the public to blame him rather than take responsibility themselves – Ed Woodward in particular. The reality is that no-one at United comes out of this season with much to celebrate. The higher-ups have looked both incompetent and inconsistent by hiring a tactically limited manager yet not even giving him the tools to succeed. They have preached stability and consistency with the 6-year contract offered to Moyes, yet with all the changes of the field and Moyes’ short reign, they have practised anything but.

Moyes himself has probably ruled himself out of an appointment of a similar calibre in the future, barring a roaring success with a smaller club. It is not the failure to qualify for the Champion’s League that has cost Moyes his job, it is the manner of that failure. Not only are the club a long way removed from the Champion’s League places, but they have never played like a team who are a few signings away from being competitive. Their record against the top sides speaks for itself, and Everton’s fantastic season under Roberto Martinez has done Moyes absolutely no favours at all. Manchester United have officially begun their search for a new manager, though I suspect that began a while ago in reality. The problems at the club go far deeper than who is at the helm though, and whoever the new manager is will need more of a chance to succeed than Moyes has been given.

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