Monday 20 January 2020

David McWilliams: Office politics snuffed out Fine Gael's brightest star

David McWilliams

LIKE you, I've been listening to many opinions on the George Lee episode. The one thing that has stood out in all the conversations is just how out of touch the political insiders seem to be with the rest of the population. The political insiders -- the politicians themselves, party members and canvassers as well as the political pundits and correspondents who live inside the world of the Dail -- speak of George's betrayal, his petulance and something called procedure. Of his many crimes, the idea of not knowing your place appears to be a significant offence.

On the other hand, you examine the polls taken by 'Liveline' and the like and you get a totally different picture. The average person believes George; the average person trusts him and supports his move to quit. If these polls are to be taken at face value, could it be that the political "insiders" are out of step with the civilian "outsiders"?

Arguably we have a clear division between, on one side, the wizened, "nose-tapping" cynics who believe they know how things should be done and, on the other, the wide-eyed, possibly naive, optimists who hope for change. The George Lee saga could well be the first skirmish in a long war between those who believe the system should be defended -- the insiders -- and the outsiders who believe the status quo is part of the problem. One of the most significant and consistent criticisms of George by the insiders has been that he didn't do his time. Some say he couldn't hack it. But hack what? Hack the "slowly, slowly, don't rock the boat" world of biding your time, playing the game and, ultimately, engineering a career based on climbing up the slippery pole. Of course he couldn't hack it and why should he? He wasn't voted in to do that.

Another politician yesterday spoke earnestly of learning the ropes. He suggested that George didn't really give himself a chance to understand how the system worked. But why should he have? Surely the point is that the system is the problem and if someone with his specific talents (for economics) is seen as being of equal value in an economic crisis to another backbencher who can't spell monopoly, then what is the point in the whole exercise? Either we vote for competence or we don't.

To the observer, it is difficult not to conclude that George scared the daylights out of lesser able contemporaries who decided that the only way to deal with a bright star was put manners on him. So leave him out, let him cool off. Anyone who has worked in an office will recognise the tell-tale signs of office politics.

One of the classic ploys in this game is to let it be known that the person's assets are in fact superficial and a liability for the "hard graft" of the ground war. And so it came to pass. Amazingly, another factor that emerged as a stick to bash him with is that George Lee is famous, articulate, intelligent and a great communicator -- and rather than these being attributes that could be deployed usefully these are seen to be the dubious affectations of a "poster boy", leading to slurs such as narcissism and self-absorption.

When are the political insiders going to realise that there are people like George Lee who stand out from the crowd because of the very talent that distinguishes them from others? This is why people follow them. This is why 27,000 people vote for them, precisely because they are not like everyone else. Sorry, the world isn't equal. Some kids are better at football than others, that's just the way it goes and the one who is better gets picked.

George Lee's crime was honesty and having the courage to ask, why? Why should it be like this? Why should we serve time on the backbenches? Why should the best economic communicator in the Dail who has forgotten more about economics than most of our politicians will ever learn, have to sit and listen to men on his own side make things up as they go along -- spoofing and clutching at second-rate notes scribbled by advisers?

Just in case you think this is one high-profile economist defending another one, I acknowledge that I know and like George Lee. We were both economists in the Central Bank years ago -- so we go back a long way. I have huge respect for his talents and know that he has "living room" appeal. Ordinary people believe him because he has been both right and honest in his work over the years. What the insiders don't understand is that he has done his time, just not in the Dail. He has done his time where it really matters, in people's living rooms. This is his currency. It is not celebrity, it is credibility -- and credibility is what is lacking in politics.

Not deploying George Lee effectively is not an academic point. Fine Gael's "good" bank was the best solution to our banking crisis. It is a basic model used in many countries. There is no need for a NAMA; instead the old banks should be allowed to disappear and their deposits transferred to a new bank. The State is the major shareholder in the new bank and so can make a huge profit for taxpayers when it is sold. The old creditors take a nasty haircut but get equity in the new bank and they stay in the game. That's the basic story. It is easy to sell, easy to understand and far preferable to the NAMA monster (which the IMF told the Government close to a year ago wouldn't work).

But instead of getting George Lee to sell this idea to the electorate which he would have done in his sleep, and in so doing might have created a united front against NAMA with a credible alternative, Fine Gael didn't deploy him effectively. God knows why. Selling this idea should have been his and his alone and the older, more established politicians should have been big enough to see that he was the best man to sell it. He is the man that your auntie believes. The trust of the aunties and mammies of Ireland is hard earned. They see through show-boaters. They remember who said what when. They remember in the last few years, George Lee told it as it was. Who in Fine Gael is going to replace him? Who is going to do things differently now?

Worse still, whether you agree with the way he departed, who -- with experience -- will now contemplate joining one of the established parties now? On the other hand, maybe this episode brings closer the emergence of a totally new party looking to change, not preserve the system.

www.davidmcwilliams.ie

Irish Independent

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