Contingency & Attribution

Liz Truss could have become many things as she grew up. She became Prime Minister of the UK.

The demise of Liz Truss is as much a cruel personal tragedy as it is the death rattle of the Brexit project, as one columnist said. Times journalist Matthew Parris was even more excoriating, her fate being entirely predictable, as in his words ‘she ha[d] never said anything important or interesting or thoughtful.’ Much had been made of her attempts to channel an inner Margaret Thatcher, a leader still venerated in the Conservative Party for some obscure reason, a woman who had genuinely changed the world – along with Ronald Reagan, of course, similarly worshipped in the American GOP. Yet how much can truly be laid at the feet of these so-called great leaders? And how much should Liz Truss be vilified for her perceived errors and misjudgments?

There are two key philosophical strands that weave together to illuminate the subject: the philosophy of history, of which we have written many times here on SL; and the problem of agency, of which I have no doubt we will write much more in the coming years. As I see it, in the first instance all human actions are to some degree contingent: we can only decide based on the facts before us; we can only influence based on our education and capacity for rhetoric; and we can only impact on the world around us to the extent that that world is receptive to our exertions. In the second instance, the beatification of former leaders (as part of the judgement of history) by posterity is made possible by the limits of narrative: someone was in charge when a thing happened (the Berlin Wall came down, the mining unions were defeated), therefore they were in some sense responsible for that thing. Henry Kissinger may have been a kind of Richelieu, or Rasputin figure for his influence and machinations, but he was not the President / King / Tsar. He may have been in some sense exceptional, but he was in no sense responsible. There are few images of the advisors, save those in magazines and contemporary functional representations; there are certainly no contemporary statues.

In the third instance, there is a problem of contingency and timelines. There is only one timeline, at least that we here in our universe have access to. Who is to say that outcomes would not have been the same, or even better, had another person had the role? So many leadership positions come teaming with advisors, and a permanent government who will invariably reflect a politics that is current, moderate and cautious.

There is a more fundamental quandary in the challenge of attribution, in that it assigns some unique, personal power to the individual. The assignation of greatness is not merely an honorific; it recognises something elevated, something special, something no other person could have achieved. Only for that person, the battle would have been lost; only for that person, the decision would have been reversed; only for that person – because, in some sense, they could see further than we could, they were smarter, more shrewd, more cunning, more able.

And yet, and yet. We return to the constraints of contingency. Given another set of circumstances, would that person have been so great? Warren Buffet wrote several years ago that despite having been born with a gift for financial modelling, had he been born in Bangladesh he would doubtless have remained poor his whole life. Even that supposition – being born with a gift – is no windborne surprise: genes, culture, education, gender and – yes – location – each play a role. All of these things contributed to nourish perhaps aptitude. Another article a few years back sought to identify an entrepreneur gene in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and the only commonality they found was that they had been born into money.

It works the other way too – just as greatness is something to be taken lightly, so is the pain of failure. Liz Truss had some ideas that might have resurrected a broken Britain in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, when she co-wrote that Britannia Unchained paper back in 2012. That was ten years ago, and the world had changed by the time she came into office – but once she did, it was still the thing that drove her. Her ideas may have been the right ones for a different context, a world more receptive to her exertions. Similarly, the infighting in the conservative party was always going to produce a leader that was uncertain of their support, whatever the outcome. So maybe Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak and the rest may have dodged a bullet by not acceding to the premiership in the last round; that Truss was found out by a dodgy budget was merely one set of circumstances. Perhaps another leader may have been found out by a scandal or a national security breach, and in their own crisis, in that inaccessible timeline, found support within the party similarly wanting. Maybe, maybe, maybe. We cannot know – all we can say is that Liz Truss failed; to say that it is somehow her fault, however, might be going a bit too far.

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