Passing the buck is no substitute for policy

4 min read

diversityBoris Johnson has created his own problems. He shouldn’t blithely rely on others to get him out of them, says Stuart Nathan

The Engineer is not normally the place anybody would go to for political commentary, apart from when the world of politics overlaps significantly with the discipline of engineering. However, as with so many things that he does, Boris Johnson makes us take exceptional steps.

Boris Johnson has put the onus on engineers to solve the Irish border question. Image credit: Stephen via adobe.stock

It is still some hours until Johnson becomes Prime Minister. But owing to his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, we have some insight into how he is thinking (presumably, this insight will now cease until such time as he ceases to be Prime Minister, however this comes to pass). In this Saturday’s column, he compared one of the more intractable aspects of problems surrounding Brexit – the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – to the landing of Apollo 11. Paraphrasing somewhat, Johnson said that nobody knew how to get to the moon but the Apollo team did it anyway, and we need to recapture that spirit to solve the issue of trade across the Irish border once the UK had left the European Union. If they could do it with 50 year old technology "and a hand-knitted computer", surely we can do it now.

So many people have criticised the nonsensical aspects of this statement that it is almost pointless to go into detail on the many ways in which it is wrong. But just to pick a few obvious ones, the UK can’t “recapture” the spirit of Apollo, because it was an American spirit in the first place. It took over 400,000 people and 4% of US GDP in 1969 to put men on the moon (and it’s worth pointing out that the US had the only economy in the Western world that was not still recovering from the Second World War while it was developing the Apollo technology). We could also add to that the drive to develop that technology came originally not from Americans at all, but from Germans captured from the Nazi V2 missile programme – perhaps not a model anybody else should want to follow.

Moreover, on its first test the Apollo technology killed its entire crew, and once it was working every stage of every mission had built into it the ability to abort if it became too dangerous: not something that supporters of Brexit are prepared to contemplate, it seems. He also referred to the re-entry of the Apollo command module into the atmosphere as “frictionless”, which reveals that however gifted he might be as a linguist and classicist, his knowledge of physics is sadly lacking and he wasn’t paying attention to what actually happened during the mission.

Leaving all this aside (if this is possible), what's truly objectionable about this comparison is that it implies that the problem of the Irish border, which is not only entirely political but created by politicians of which Boris Johnson was himself a leading member, is not one that he believes politicians should solve. No, this is a job for technology.  In other words, his big policy idea is to pass the buck to engineers.

It might be seen as flattering that our new Prime Minister places so much faith in the ability of experts. After all, during the referendum campaign, his then-ally Michael Gove infamously stated that the country had had enough of experts and that therefore any “expert” advice on the potential dangers of Brexit should be ignored. Unfortunately, Johnson’s past career makes this interpretation unlikely.

If there is one thing that has marked out how Johnson has approached things in the past – apart from, shall we say, a creative interpretation of the truth – it’s a willingness to take the credit for things he had nothing to do with and to blame others when his own actions go wrong. Just as one example, during  the hustings for his campaign for the Conservative leadership, he claimed credit for London’s bicycle hire scheme (which was Ken Livingstone’s idea, and Johnston’s contribution was to botch a sponsorship deal which led to Londoners paying a large proportion of the cost of the scheme despite Johnson’s assurances that it would cost them nothing), and for delivering the 2012 London Olympics (once again, Livingstone had led the Olympic bid campaign and the late Tessa Jowell was in charge of delivery). With these precedents, it seems likely that if a technological solution is found to “frictionless movements” across the Irish border, Johnson will claim credit for it. And if it can’t, he’ll just lay the blame on the engineers who couldn’t solve the problem he created, and who never asked to be involved (and in many cases, didn't support it either).

Johnson possibly sees this as Churchillian. His idol, Winston Churchill, was well known for trusting teams of engineering experts to solve problems that arose during the conduct of the Second World War. However, he infamously stated that experts should be “on tap, not on top.” Ever the believer of putting people in their place, Churchill thought that the relative positions of politicians and technologists should be that the latter were clearly subservient to the former. It’s no surprise that Johnson, whose entire career from the time he left Eton (if not before) has been predicated on his sense of entitlement, should believe likewise.

It would be good to see Johnson backing up statements that technology should solve this problem with a solid set of policies to help this happen. Setting up properly-funded studies involving trade experts and computer scientists, for example, or identifying regions where frictionless trade already happens (although not taking the open borders of European countries under the Schengen agreement as an example). Johnson only has until 31st October to solve this problem, a deadline that even the most optimistic member of the Apollo team would have baulked at.

It gives me no great pleasure to greet the arrival of a new government with pre-emptive criticism. After all, it’s not as if the Opposition is currently in any state to inspire confidence or hope. But, as has been stated so many times by other commentators, Boris Johnson is an exception to many rules. We can only hope that the collision of his airy schemes with cold reality forces him to change his approach.

  •  On a brighter note, the new BBC series on influential inventions which we mentioned in yesterday's poll article got off to a strong start last night with a film dedicated to the invention of powered aeroplanes. Simplified but not dumbed down, it mentioned neglected figures such as George Cayley and Otto Lillienthal as well as the inevitable Wright Brothers, Frank Whittle and Leonardo Da Vinci, and presenter Jim Al-Khalili was supported by an array of fluid dynamicists and aerospace engineers, with a refreshing lack of intrusive background music and fast editing. Catch "Revolutions: Ideas That Changed the World" on iPlayer