THE BLOG
07/02/2012 08:02 GMT | Updated 07/04/2012 06:12 BST

Too Much Intelligence is Bad for Government

So cleverness is, of course, necessary. But it is only part of the answer. What we desperately need in our leaders and advisers and what we desperately lack is something more subtle; it's an understanding of how people live, bolstered by brains, but leavened with a great big dash of humility.

At the end of last week, the Daily Mail reported research that rightwingers are thicker than lefties, and so, by implication, that this government is less clever than the last. It raises the question: how bright do you need to be to govern?

Having had a ringside seat at both the present and the last governments, I can say with some certainty that too much cleverness can be bad for the country's interests.

The central problem with having a lot of brains is that it can make you think you're great, better than everyone else. Power and brains together are a toxic combination.

Take New Labour, which prides itself on its brains. There are many incredibly clever people who lead the movement, who come up with the policies, who advise the leaders. Many great people developing great ideas. However some of these frighteningly clever people have focused on being clever rather than understanding the people around them.

I found this again and again. One of my jobs in politics has been to create and curate high-level policy discussions. Having developed these events from scratch and brought people to the table, when it came to the actual event in question, I would find myself too shy to say a word myself. Why? I've got an 'ology (O levels, A levels, a degree, a masters) but the mood of some of the events was such that I didn't feel qualified to speak. A number of times I suspect I was mistaken for the tea lady.

During one particularly intense discussion of welfare, which hinged on a detailed arithmetical point, I was left wondering how something so much part of everyday life - education, health - could have become so esoteric. I also noticed how pleased everybody looked with themselves. How, when someone made a clever point, rather than a good or useful point, waves of mutual regard engulfed the room spreading from man to man - because, yes, the majority were men.

In my experience, many bright people on the left are in love with being clever more than making a difference and this extreme cleverness leads to policy strangulation. Policy makers start to think they can't send their great policies out into the world in case the Great Unwashed mangle them. This, I believe, goes to the heart of why New Labour couldn't create any Big Society type initiatives, even though it believes itself to be the true party of localism.

In about 2000, I was working with a progressive centre left think tank, and here I found clever people hand wringing over the, then new idea, of neighbourhood budgets - "But what if people use the money to create some sort of Berlin Wall between feuding neighbours? What if a BNP member gets hold if the money and does bad things?" What if, what if... What a dystopian view of one's fellow man. And so the policy went round and round, and nowhere.

It's not just the lefties, it's also civil servants. Take this anecdote told to me by a Treasury friend. Tax Credits were initially conceived by Gordon Brown as a way of realigning the tax system while introducing some back door redistribution.

The finest minds in Her Majesty's Treasury set to work. They ran figures through the analytical mill, worked out proportions, and devised a system. They were geniuses how could it go wrong? But, as history tells us, it did go wrong. The finest minds in the Treasury, being mostly young, mostly white, mostly Oxbridge, and mostly high achieving, lived very different lives from the people they were designing Tax Credits for. Because of this they got their assumptions wrong. They assumed that salaries move in constant increments as government salaries do, and they assumed that households were broadly stable - neither of which is true for many recipients of Tax Credits. The end result: a system that has proven to be even more of a nightmare than the problem it was trying to solve.

The fact is there are three stumbling blocks to making good governors: age, sex, brains - if you are young, male and very clever then God help us all.

Of course, the opposite is a problem too. Being overly simplistic is no recipe for success. I once worked for an ailing education body facing potential major regulatory change, possibly nationalisation. A range of advisers came in to tell us what we should do including among them an aging Conservative MP. After deliberation, this grandee's insight for saving our organisation from going to the wall was presented in a ten-point plan. Two important things stood out in this plan: one, it was printed on purple paper; two, it hinged on a crucial incentive scheme revolving around the issuing of gold stars to staff. Oh, and the ten-point plan ran out after about point seven. (Our Chief Executive loved it, but that's another story).

So cleverness is, of course, necessary. But it is only part of the answer. What we desperately need in our leaders and advisers and what we desperately lack is something more subtle; it's an understanding of how people live, bolstered by brains, but leavened with a great big dash of humility.