Jeremy Corbyn, George Osborne and co: ‘Pragmatism’ and the Art of Indirect Strategy?

Most politicians like to claim to be “pragmatic” these days. The latest is Jeremy Corbyn, who now claims his economic program is “just pragmatic”.

George Osborne likewise claims he is only being pragmatic about the public finances, getting the deficit and debt under control, whilst actually his clear, but unstated, aim is to permanently reduce the size of government.

New Labour always claimed to be being merely “pragmatic” when it claimed that people didn’t care who provided public services, but for some reason kept coming down on the side of outsourcing to private providers. Or that liberalizing labor markets was just a pragmatic reaction to globalization. In reality Brown and Blair, but especially the latter, were more liberal democrats than social democrats – favoring market or market-like solutions whenever possible.

Now Jeremy Corbyn seems to be attempting to soften his image by claiming to be merely “pragmatic” in his economic policies – whilst in practice favoring old-fashioned statist public ownership and planning as the preferred solution. Which prompted me into thinking about this universal appeal to ‘pragmatism’ and where it comes from?

What Corbyn, Osborne and Blair call “pragmatism” is what was once called “logical incrementalism” in a famous bit of management theory. This particular phrase was coined by James Brian Quinn in the 1980s. It suggested that businesses have a strategic goal or broad aim, but are (or should be) “pragmatic” about how they get to it. They experiment with various things that move them in the direction of their overarching goal, retreating and advancing on other fronts as necessary and depending on what successes they have.

Quinn’s “logical incrementalism” was developed in contrast to the “strategic planning” approach that had dominated much of western business between the end of WWII and the 1980s. Since then there have been several similar approaches, all of which involve this combination of strategic direction with pragmatic tactics to reach broad goals.

Notice the military terminology creeping in here – business (and political) strategy has long drawn on military metaphors and even some actual military theory. In some ways Quinn’s approach resembles the “indirect approach” to military strategy developed by Basil Liddell Hart between the world wars and implemented ruthlessly in the Nazi “blitzkrieg”. The basic idea has recently been revamped in John Kay’s “obliquity” – again the idea of reaching an objective by indirect and pragmatic ’experimentation’ rather than direct assault or grand plans.

I use the term ‘indirect strategy’ to capture this broad approach.

Politicians of all stripes have long realized that electorates have become far less ideological in recent decades. The passions of the 20th century that gave us communism and fascism seem, thankfully, to have subsided. That doesn’t mean most people no longer care or are apathetic (though some really don’t care and are apathetic) but that they are generally less moved by appeals to Big Ideas, except perhaps as simplistic ways to explain complex issues.

Politicians on the other hand need Big Ideas to weld their political tribes into parties and factions. And many genuinely “believe” in their neo-utopian capitalistic or socialist ideals.

Politicians also – borrowing from marketing and PR – have realized its easier to justify a specific policy by reference to some big, simple, idea than it is to sell a detailed policy analysis. On the other hand they don’t want to appear too ideological.

So we get very vague, very abstract, sloganizing and “common-sense” analogies (”fixing the roof whilst the sun is shining”) coupled with specific policies that are said to be pragmatic, unavoidable, decisions. The real indirect strategy remains hidden in a sort of meso-level fog somewhere between rhetoric and concrete policy.

To draw on another management theorist, Henry Mintzberg, you can often only see the real strategy as an emergent “pattern in a stream of decisions” over time and in retrospect. No-one is going to come clean that is what they wanted all along – e.g. a much smaller government – when they can get there using an “indirect approach” or “logical incrementalism”.

There is still room for argument about whether George Osborne is really just implementing pragmatic policies to deal with the deficit and debt that just happen to lead to a smaller state, or whether that has been his strategic intent all along and he is only “pragmatic” about how, and how fast, to get there. My own view is that the evidence is clear it is the latter, as I have argued elsewhere (see a whole series of posts here).

As for Jeremy Corbyn’s sudden conversion to “pragmatism”, I rather think that has more to do with the proximity of power (in the very limited sense of being Labour leader) than any genuine commitment to ’evidence-based policy’. But the problem for those of us analyzing policies these days is that in an age of “indirect strategy” it’s often hard to tell what politicians – of all stripes – are really aiming for. We can usually only find out in retrospect.




2 thoughts on “Jeremy Corbyn, George Osborne and co: ‘Pragmatism’ and the Art of Indirect Strategy?

  1. That link to Corbyn’s supposedly quoted use of the word ‘pragmatic’ leads to nothing of the sort. Pragmatism is used as a smear by the right wing author whose article you reference and whose smear you happily promulgate. Corbyn’s headline claim is that his policy is ‘mainstream’ and supported by a large number of highly respected academics and an IMF report, acknowledging that the growth of inequality itself was a cause of the 2007/8 crashes. If you claim to analyse policy then maybe it is you who should look at the evidence?

  2. Forgive me for bothering you again, but this ‘merely’ pragmatic has continued to nag. Surely pragmatism is a fine thing in an economist? It is not, after all, a science or we would have much less controversy. What you are saying is that he has trimmed his sails in the light of emerging opposition, and that is far from true, and certainly a worse slur than pragmatism.

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