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Kwasi Kwarteng was the wrong sort of clever - by Dominic Sandbrook for UnHerd - 18.10.22

The ex-Chancellor's humiliation was inevitable

BY DOMINIC SANDBROOK for Unherd October 18, 2022

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

I had a horrendous cold over the weekend — so awful, in fact, that in an unprecedented development, my wife grudgingly conceded that “it might actually be flu”. And so it was that, tossing and turning with a raging temperature, I was visited in my dreams by the late Kwasi Kwarteng.

Other people’s dreams are rarely very interesting, so I’ll keep this brief. I had a towering pile of columns to file, but had failed to start work on any of them. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now working as a kind of journalistic bailiff, was pursuing me through a series of oddly blank rooms.

In a twist not unfamiliar in dreams, he was not merely himself, he was also the Judge, the gigantic and terrifying personification of evil in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. There is no escaping the Judge; and in my dream, there was no escaping Kwarteng.

That was bad enough. But the following night, Kwarteng visited me again. This time, in a surprising new departure, he had organised a mano a mano poetry competition in Leeds, in which he and I were due to read our own verses. Disastrously, I had forgotten all about it, and only remembered when it was far too late to catch the train.

In desperation, I scribbled a few lines and posted them on Twitter, hoping they would mollify the poetry-fanciers of West Yorkshire. But then — another disaster! The ex-Chancellor immediately retweeted them, mocking my slapdash efforts and pointing out that the first two lines ended with the same word. Shame and ignominy engulfed me; I knew I could never show my face again.

Nightmares about public failure are very common. There can be few readers who haven’t dreamed about turning up to an exam entirely unprepared, or about walking onstage having neglected to learn the lines.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the more you care about such things, the more likely they are to haunt you, which is why they’re so common among academic high-achievers. So perhaps Kwarteng himself, whose academic credentials are second to none, has had such dreams. And if he did, here’s the twist. His nightmares came true.

What happened to Kwarteng on Friday — and again yesterday, when Jeremy Hunt ripped up his mini-budget, poured petrol on the debris and set the whole thing alight — was more than your standard political sacking.

It was a humiliation on the grandest possible scale, as the Chancellor was forced to fly back early from Washington, with some 6,000 people gleefully tracking his flight, before Liz Truss delivered the inevitable bullet. He had been in command at the Treasury for just 38 days, saved only from a post-war record by Iain Macleod’s heart attack in July 1970.

It’s hard to think of many British political figures with such a catastrophic trajectory. Kwarteng had been Boris Johnson’s Business Secretary since January 2021, but it’s a safe bet most ordinary punters had never heard of him. Then, suddenly, he was Chancellor, with a breathtakingly radical plan to defy the markets and turbo-charge a new era of growth.

Then, equally suddenly, he became the most unpopular Chancellor in the history of the Ipsos-Mori poll, with even less public support than Denis Healey after the International Monetary Fund bailout in 1976 or Norman Lamont after Black Wednesday in 1992. And then he was gone, and it was all over. What a career!

You might assume from all this that Kwarteng is a fool. But he really isn’t a fool. Giving school talks, I’ve twice come across people who taught him, and both told me he was the cleverest boy they’d ever known. Were they wrong?

Obviously not, for when you look at his biography, it’s a proud parent’s dream. At prep school he won a national history prize; at Eton he was a King’s Scholar and won the Newcastle Scholarship for philosophy, a competition examined by Stephen Sykes, Bishop of Ely and former Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.

Kwarteng himself went to Cambridge, where he got a double first, twice won the Browne Medal for Latin and Greek poetry and even won University Challenge. He was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard. He did a PhD on William III’s attempt to reform the coinage in the 1690s.

And he’s written history books — two of which I reviewed at the time. “Well-researched and crisply written, Kwarteng’s book is a lot better than most MPs’ efforts,” I wrote of Ghosts of Empire, which examined the legacy of Britain’s rule overseas. “A politician with a sense of nuance: whatever next?”

For much of his gilded life, then, Kwarteng knew only success. And when he looked forward, he could reasonably expect more in the future. When he daydreamed, he surely imagined himself as a titanic reforming Chancellor to rank alongside William Gladstone or Sir Geoffrey Howe — and perhaps even as Prime Minister.

And now? He’s the answer to a quiz question, the 38-day Chancellor whose tax bombshell exploded in his own face. To put that another way, if he were an England football manager, he’d be the love child of Steve McClaren and Sam Allardyce.

Omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset. “All would have agreed that he was capable of being emperor, if only he had never been it.” So wrote Tacitus of the short-lived Roman emperor Galba — who, in fairness, lasted almost seven times longer in his top job than Kwarteng did at the Treasury. It’s a line that often recurs in British political commentary.

I’ve seen it applied to Prime Ministers as diverse as Lord Rosebery, Arthur Balfour, Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, Gordon Brown and Boris Johnson. Perhaps that tells you something about the job — an office in which, one way or another, failure is almost guaranteed. But it’s also very revealing about a quality those men had in common. Like Kwarteng, they were all very clever.

Wilson, for example, was described by his Oxford tutor as the brightest student he had ever taught, and reputedly got one of the highest economics marks in the university’s history. There’s a gloriously bleak irony here, since Wilson presided over the devaluation of sterling in 1967 and retired nine years later with the pound in freefall, inflation in double digits and the humiliating IMF bailout only months away.

His government was arguably the cleverest in Britain’s modern history, boasting former Oxford dons such as Richard Crossman and Anthony Crosland as well as self-consciously intelligent, civilised men such as Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins. Yet they left office exhausted by endless fiascos and disappointments, with Britain’s international standing at what was then an all-time low. So much, then, for cleverness.

But the Wilson government wasn’t an aberration, for political history is littered with examples of people being found out, often in the most embarrassing possible circumstances.

Now that he’s remembered as a byword for complacent failure, it’s easy to forget that David Cameron was a straight-A student who won an exhibition to Brasenose College, Oxford and was described by his tutor, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, as “one of the ablest” students he’d ever taught. (By now you should have spotted a theme.) An even more glaring example, however, comes from across the Atlantic.

Google “Michael Ignatieff” and you wonder if it was really legal for one man to have enjoyed so many blessings. Everything the Canadian intellectual touched turned to gold. At boarding school in Toronto in the Sixties he was captain of the soccer team and editor of the yearbook. He taught at Oxford and the London School of Economics.

He presented The Late Show for the BBC and wrote columns for the Observer. His documentaries won awards; his biography of Isaiah Berlin was shortlisted for some of the world’s most prestigious non-fiction prizes; his novel was even shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He was awarded a professorial chair at Harvard, then another at Toronto. And when his friends in the Canadian Liberal Party invited him to make a bid for the leadership, further glory seemed inevitable.

What happened next, however, makes Kwarteng’s stewardship of the Treasury look like a triumph. In 2011 Ignatieff led the Liberals to the worst defeat in their history, finishing third with just 34 seats. What was worse, he even lost his own seat in Etobicoke–Lakeshore, the first Canadian opposition leader to do so since 1900.

His staff were in tears, the world was watching, and all those book prizes must have seemed an awfully long way away. In the cruellest twist imaginable, the man who always came top in exams had failed the most public exam of all.

So is the lesson that clever people shouldn’t go into politics? Obviously not. We need clever politicians; it’s no coincidence that probably the two least impressive pre-Truss party leaders in my lifetime, Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn, were titanically stupid.

But there are different kinds of cleverness, and cleverness is just one asset among others. Above all, it has to be leavened by humility: a recognition that nobody knows everything, that we all make mistakes and that clever, self-confident people often make the worst mistakes of all. In profiles of Kwarteng, the word “arrogant” comes up again and again. He’s paid a high price for it now.

But aren’t we all terrified, deep down, of becoming Kwasi Kwarteng? Isn’t there a little bit of us that dreads the inevitable day when, on the grandest stage, our boastful pretensions are stripped away, and our ignorance and incompetence laid bare for all to see?

Isn’t that the nightmare that haunts all vaguely accomplished people — the Naomi Wolf moment, when the BBC radio presenter gently points out that your entire doctoral thesis is based on a colossally sloppy misunderstanding?

In his excellent book The Death of Consensus, the journalist Phil Tinline argues that nightmares are a good way of understanding British politics since the war — nightmarish memories of the Depression or a fascist dictatorship giving way to equally terrifying fears of trade unions or runaway inflation.

But perhaps the ultimate personal nightmare, the dread of catastrophic public humiliation, is a good way to understand why some politicians succeed, and some don’t.

We’re told that Liz Truss is a very confident person, and that she models herself on Margaret Thatcher. But Thatcher wasn’t a very confident person; in private she sometimes wept when the pressure became too much, and her staff often noticed that she became jittery before big international summits or major speeches.

“Do you get nervous sometimes?” asked an interviewer from the News of the World in 1980. “Oh yes,” said Thatcher. “Of course you do, you never get rid of it.” She sometimes struggled to sleep, she admitted, because she worried so much.

That’s not the fantasy Thatcher, the Iron Lady of Truss and Kwarteng’s imaginings. But perhaps that’s the difference. Somewhere, deep down, she knew what she didn’t know. She was frightened of being found out, and that meant she wasn’t. But they slept too soundly. And now, in a twist of cosmic proportions, they’re living the worst professional nightmare of all.

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Nightmare on Downing Street (OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

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