McBride’s head revisited: Spads spin and creativity

April 13, 2009
Machiavelli

Machiavelli

The sacking of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damien McBride raises questions about the moral neutrality of creativity and the implications of this for leadership

Politics, like any sub-culture, has its own dialect and signifiers which are viewed with suspicion by outsiders, and used unthinkingly inside the tent. This week the word spads oozed into the wider public consciousness from Westminster, referring to special political advisors.

Spads, we learn, are functionaries hired to bring in fresh ideas, supplying their political masters with ‘out of the box’ thinking (to use another much-loathed signifier of management and political speak).

If Spads have a patron saint it would be Machiavelli, widely remembered for his handbook of political advice to leaders, a best-seller ever since it was written nearly five centuries ago.
Our story this week deals with the sudden dismissal of Gordon Brown’s special advisor, Damien McBride. Damien’s ideas hardly compare with the wisdom of mighty Mach for the power of their insights. About the only thing the two spads have in common is loyalty to a patron and to the patron’s perceived best interests.

Spads occupy a world which often brackets off moral judgments in its preoccupations with extreme pragmatism. I happen to think it raises another important issue for leaders on the moral neutrality of the creative act (which I’ll get to later).

McBride’s head revisited

First, the context to the McBride story. Seems that while musing on how to support the waning cause of his master’s popularity, McBride hit on the idea of smearing Gordon’s political enemies. In the manner of spads, he ran it up the flagpole to see who would salute it. Or, less metaphorically, he sent the idea by email to a friend and fellow Spad, Derek Draper. Said e-mail gets into the public domain. Let’s spread around some juicy rumours about David Cameron. Oh yes, and George Osborne as well, and what’s her name, that Nadine Dorries. What a wheeze! The stories don’t even have to be true. Brilliant.

Not very clever at all, really. According to Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political correspondent [April 1th 2009]

[McBride] had been by Gordon Brown’s side for many years, paid to try to control the media coverage of his boss. But the e-mails he wrote to his old pal – another former Labour spin doctor, Derek Draper – crossed the line even in the often brutal world of politics.
He is leaving Number 10 with no severance pay, no fat pay off, according to a Downing Street source.

And not everyone appears to be buying Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne’s explanation that this was “one private e-mail exchange between a couple of friends who were knocking backwards and forwards ideas.”

Drearily, the story survives a few days

Something has to fill the headlines over the Easter holiday period. Gordon Brown (with or without spad advice) seems to have acted decisively in damage limitation. It seems likely that without some unexpected twist to the tale, the Prime Minister will endure short-term public embarrassment, the cost of closure of the episode. Why no long-term damage? Partly because of the likeliness that efforts to do so will require political energies as well as media enthusiasm. The conservatives are unlikely to divert too much effort from more promising targets, already identified or hopping into view of their artillery.

In essence, it is a sad and not unfamiliar political story. Remember the tale of the humiliation of a spad who had the idea of a good day to bury bad news, [after the twin towers atrocity of 2001] and who lost her job when the idea leaked into the public domain?

A question of creativity

If we look at the story differently, we see that it raises questions about widely-held assumptions about the nature of creativity.

Creativity is about thinking the unthinkable. Yes. Creativity is often associated with drawing attention to ideas which have been ignored and gone unnoticed. Yes. The touchstone of a creative idea on these grounds is the moment of insight. The emotional charge accompanying the act of creation. ‘Eureka! Why didn’t I think of that before’.

Social conditioning reduces openness to the unconventional so that the feared and challenging and unfamiliar become ‘unthinkable’. The nonconformist serves to draw attention to such ideas. Less concerned with social criticism, he or she presses on. For Shaw, it is unreasonableness that is needed for progress. More recently, for Richard Florida, it is bohemianism which gives added vitality to a creative culture.

I find it more convincing to recognise the dangers of over-rigid and limited evaluation of ideas in inhibiting individuals and groups from accepting the merits of new ideas. Two cheers for Florida’s bohemians and Shaw’s unreasonable man. One cautionary reminder: unconventionality can be a form of knee-jerk rebellion or of eccentricity, both of which may help shake up the over-tight bonds of conventional thinking. We may chose to label all such behaviours examples of creativity in action.

For me, most politicians have accepted the view that they didn’t get where they are through outstanding abilities at coming up with good ideas. This opened the way to spads to do their creative thinking for them. And also to be there to get the blame if something unpleasant results from their subsequent creative actions.

This line of reasoning takes me to the conclusion that Mr McBride was not particularly creative. His moment of inspiration amounted essentially to ‘let’s smear Cameron’. As an idea, its down there with Kenny Everett’s less than inspired cry ‘Let’s bomb Russia’, or more recently Russell Brand’s on-air ravings against another media figure. Novelty is not an adequate criterion for creative productivity.