Managing to Look Attractive: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton Are Both in Love with Management Theory. It Helps Them Look Respectable and Efficient but Best Not Take It Too Far

By Micklethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian | New Statesman (1996), November 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Managing to Look Attractive: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton Are Both in Love with Management Theory. It Helps Them Look Respectable and Efficient but Best Not Take It Too Far


Micklethwait, John, Wooldridge, Adrian, New Statesman (1996)


Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are both in love with management theory. It helps them look respectable and efficient, but best not take it too far

According to the old saying: "If you are not left-wing at 20, you have no heart; if you're still left-wing at 40, you have no head." On both sides of the Atlantic voters now seem committed to two middle-aged men who have long since let their heads overrule their hearts.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both once belonged to the left. Complete with bad haircuts, flares and dreams about eradicating poverty, Bill and Hillary campaigned passionately for Senator George McGovern. Blair, a student rock singer, joined the Labour party and endorsed woolly causes such as nuclear disarmament. Now both men are running on conservative programmes that would have horrified their younger selves.

The conventional explanation for this is realpolitik. Both Clinton and Blair remain liberals at heart, it is argued, but they are forced to adopt right-wing positions to secure election. After their respective victories they may once again return to their liberal roots.

The truth is more complicated. Whatever the pressures of the electorate, a fundamental shift has taken place in left-of-centre politics. Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have swapped their earlier faith (liberalism in Clinton's case, socialism in Blair's) for a new, more modern creed - managerialism. Managerialism is not just a cover for their earlier, more youthful ideas, nor is it just a means to an end. Both Clinton and Blair are managerialists to the core: they believe that the point of getting into government is to run things better.

This change mirrors another: the increasing importance of management theory in public life. More and more of today's ruling class have been schooled in management. They have trained at business school or worked in businesses and consultancies. One of Bill Clinton's earliest decisions as a new Democrat was to turn himself into an insider in this movement. He has long been a voracious reader of management books and attender of management conferences.

He has carried these ideas with him into the White House, most conspicuously through Al Gore's "re-inventing government" programme. The healthcare plan that many liberals point to as evidence of the Clintons' enduring idealism was really an exercise in managerialism. It was designed by a management fanatic, Ira Magaziner, and based on the idea of "managed competition" invented by Alain Enthoven, a management theorist based at Stanford University. Ironically, the plan collapsed partly because it represented an overdose of management. It might have passed muster with MBAs, but it infuriated the politicians on Capitol Hill, who threw it out largely unread.

At the lowest point of his presidency - in 1994, when the Republicans had stormed Capitol Hill and his popularity had fallen through the floor - he spent Thanksgiving holed up with two personal motivation gurus: Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Anthony Robbins, whose trademark is getting his votaries to walk on hot coals. Clinton also brought a businessman, Erskine Bowles, to perform a time-and-motion study of his schedule. Bowles produced a business plan, Strategic Goals for 1995, which, among other things, resulted in the President spending 62.5 per cent more time shaping domestic and economic policy.

In his own way, Blair is just as obsessed with management as his fellow Baby Boomer in the White House. His triumphant speech at the Labour Party's annual conference at Blackpool featured a promise that he would follow the business practice of making a compact with the customer and draw up a "10-point covenant" with the British people. He has dispatched John Prescott, Robin Cook et al to a series of management seminars at Templeton College in Oxford. One of Britain's leading management theorists, John Kay, the head of Oxford's new business school, is a key adviser in Blair's kitchen cabinet. …

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