Magazine article The Spectator

Alan Johnson Is Right: The Boss Should Make the Decisions; the Experts Should Advise

Magazine article The Spectator

Alan Johnson Is Right: The Boss Should Make the Decisions; the Experts Should Advise

Article excerpt

I have an independent financial adviser. I can recommend him. He gives me expert advice. But I decide, and sometimes I disagree. Nobody would question either the propriety or the commonplace nature of this arrangement.

Recently we were discussing what to do with my maturing pension fund. His suggestions looked shrewd but were predicated on a measure of resumed economic growth and the persistence for some years of low interest rates.

His assessment was well-informed and would be widely shared. But I just have this hunch that all is not well; that Western economies including our own are rather weakly placed in the grand global scheme of things; that the respite bought by pumping money into the system will have to be paid for; that the consequence might be a stunting of recovery, or inflation, or both, followed by higher interest rates again; and that it could happen within three years. This is probably total balls, but it remains my hunch and I can't (or won't) discount it.

So having read my financial adviser's investment recommendations, I asked if he might revise them somewhat in the direction of the scenario I've outlined. He said politely that he thought my fears about interest rates were misplaced, but that I was boss and he'd offer me an adjusted portfolio. In the end we've resolved to split the difference. My adviser feels under no pressure to resign, nor I to dismiss him. I'm going public, here, on this page, with my thoughts and he would be welcome to go public with his - including his opinion of my judgment, which is that my judgment is wrong.

Is there a problem here? Isn't that what advisers are for?

I ask because of the furore that has followed the Home Secretary's sacking of the chairman of his advisory council on drugs.

That each may have been entitled to his opinion; that each might have expressed that opinion in public as well as in private; that as an elected politician Alan Johnson was entitled to take into account factors, hunches, readings of popular sentiment and anxiety, and his own sociopolitical instincts about the way legislation impacts on society; and that in the end it was the democratically elected Home Secretary who was the boss, and must prevail - seems so obvious as hardly to need re-stating.

Yet most commentators have thought otherwise, seeing this as a critical test of the relative strengths in our unwritten constitution of (a) expertise, and (b) democracy.

One may think (I do) that Professor David Nutt and his committee are right about the reclassification of drugs, and Alan Johnson and his predecessor, Jacqui Smith, wrong.

One may think (I do) that, right or wrong on the issue, both home secretaries mismanaged their approach to Professor Nutt, his committee, and their advice. But advice from different quarters does sometimes clash, and politicians do sometimes make a hash of the way they handle conflicts of evidence, and there does finally have to be an unspoken understanding as to who trumps whom.

And this is where we seem to be faltering as a democracy. Much of the argument advanced in Nutt's defence seems way too strong. It has been quite seriously suggested in a range of intelligent newspapers that once a committee of external experts has offered clear advice on a question of policy, Cabinet ministers are almost bound to accept it. But why? Experts have so often been wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong. No expert is an island, entire unto itself, and experts have their own peer groups, their own blind spots, their own vested academic interests, and their own corners to fight. …

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