Churchill’s children: the rise of the privileged Marketeers in Anglo-Land

For almost a century the royal road to becoming a top politician in Anglo-Land was to study law and/or a bit of economics. In Australia that was the ticket for Keating, Hawke, Gillard, Howard, and Turnbull. In the US, that mold fit Obama (law), Clinton (law), and both GHW and GH Bush (one studied economics, the other business). In the UK, the royal road is recognised to be the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) study in Oxford, which for instance begat Cameron and several other prime-ministers since WWII.

Yet, currently, we have marketeers in charge of the most populous Anglo-countries. They are invariably men who have spent their working lives engaged in selling ideas and themselves to the general public. In Australia we have Scott Morrison, a marketing man, and before him Tony Abbott, a journo. In the US we of course have Trump, who spent decades in showbiz. I include Justin Trudeau of Canada in this list because I regard him as a born marketeer. And in the UK we now have Bojo, a journo for many years who is also, like Trudeau, a lifelong and natural self-promoter.

This is a bit much for coincidence. Politicians have always had to sell themselves, but in previous decades it was the marketing departments of political parties that helped them do it. Margaret Thatcher was famously re-dressed and re-branded to make her electable, and the Bushes had a lot of professional help in selling them. What is interesting is that now the top people themselves are marketeers. Any other skill or interest other than how to sell stuff seems a burden when it comes to reaching the top of the political tree.

Can we say the same for top politicians outside of Anglo-Land? Not really. One might at a stretch include Berlusconi, who is in many ways Trump’s predecessor but with more panache. Yet, if you look closely you will find that all the major countries are run by the usual types: Macron of France studied public administration and was in charge of a ministry; Merkel of Germany is an engineer-administrator with a similar trajectory as Thatcher; Modi of India did political science and then became a professional pollie; Jiping of China is the usual engineer-administrator normal for Chinese leaders; Putin is the usual for Russia (secret service); and Bolsonaro of Brasil is the usual for that region (military). Even Berlusconi turns out to have started with a degree in Law, the usual for Italian politicians before and after him.

So no, the non-Anglo countries do not get their politicians from the world of marketing, not even in those places we associate with populism or right-wing nationalist politics. In the rest of the world, politicians still come from the same place they came from 20 or 50 years ago. Anglo-Land has changed with the rise of the marketeers.

What is equally interesting is that really, tree of these seem to have had to reform the way politics was done in their own party and have pushed policies their parties disliked: they were resisted internally and had to force their parties into new ways. This makes their rise to power even more impressive because they will have been told constantly how wrong they were and how obviously their attempts at gaining power would fail.

Trump’s constant critics in the media and within the Republican Party are famous. Bojo argued for Brexit against the top of his own party, then once in charge kicked out his rivals from within the party, notably alienated his own brother, and was famously unpopular and disliked by the vast majority of his own parliamentary party when he was voted in by his MPs. Morrison had to battle Dutton and others for supremacy within, and was then written-off by the Labour supporters and their friends in the media till his stunning single-handed victory. In all three cases did their party insiders only grudgingly accept them as leaders in the belief they had to in order to have a chance of retaining power.

They also had professional or political careers outside of the center of their party: Boris was first major of London and then had to work his way up in the parliamentary party; Morrison was a tourism manager for many years; and we all know the stories of what the Donald was up to before politics, even trying to get into the other party first.

What is it about Anglo-Land currently that makes marketing men so electable now and not before, to the extent that these characters can make it even against the wishes of their own party? Maybe we should have a look for clues in history and find someone similar who rose to power, looking at the characteristics of that time.

I think it is not coincidental that Boris Johnson is such an admirer of Churchill, because really, all four of these men are children of Winston Churchill. Their previous careers, rise to power, and even their alleged inadequacies are close copies of Churchill.

Churchill was also a journo, a child from the elites with huge charisma who milked his journalistic experiences in the Boer War in South Africa in 1899 to great effect in order to get into parliament. There, he made sure he was constantly in the news, even switching political parties when it was convenient to him. Twice no less, earning him a lifelong reputation as a ‘rat’, a disloyal liar!

He was also a famous womaniser and drug addict, playing with the institutions of his country with total disregard for expertise or loss of life to others. Sound familiar? By the standards of today you would have to call Churchill corrupt, racist, and a war-mongerer (see here: Again, sound familiar? Amongs the policy disasters that have been laid at the feet of Churchill one can include the disastrous campaign of the Dardanelles and even the loss of the British Empire, though of course people disagree about this and this is not the place to argue either way.

My own English grandparents, who were conservatives their whole lives, thought Churchill was one of the biggest idiots in British political history (a title for which there is stiff competition!) and the biggest disaster to its standing in the world. They had to bite their tongue for decades as their country decided Winston was a hero, not an unmitigated disaster. But even my grandparents recognised he was someone who had the gift of projecting authenticity: a wonderful speech writer, quick witted and charismatic. He was a gifted marketeer and a magnet for romantic nationalists, just like Trump, Boris, Scott, and arguably even Trudeau.

So really, we are seeing the return of Churchill. It is almost as if the spirit of Churchill has infested four different men of different ages in Anglo-Land, each managing to grab power at almost the same time. Each has a bit more of this talent  and a bit less of that talent than Churchill, but with essentially similar skills.

It is tempting to conjecture that our times, at least in Anglo-Land, must resemble the time and place in which Winston rose, which was the UK of 1900-1910.

What are the similarities between 1900-1910 UK and Anglo-Land now? In 1900-1910 the UK was at the height of its colonial powers, a period of rising nationalism. It was also the time of impending loss of power as the UK was economically already overtaken by the US and, arguably, Germany, with Russia well on its way too. It was a period of immense inequality, with previous elites (the aristocracy that controlled land) feeling the hot breath of new ones in their neck (industrialists that controlled labour). It was an era used to violence and used to solving international problems with gunships.

Is our time really like this? Some bits seem similar, some not. The times are not violent at all now and the indicators we have of support levels of nationalism have been very stable for decades. What is true is that geopolitical power is being challenged by the newcomers, China and India. Inequality has also increased, though the big increase already dates back well over a decade now.

Still, then the UK was shoring up ties with France, not breaking up with France as the UK is doing now. The Labour movement challenging wealth then was up and coming, whereas now it is weak and waning.

Conversely, the 1900-1910 period in the UK had no Murdoch media, no social media, no analogue migration issues, and an even less educated and informed voting public.

The analogy with the 1930s is similarly poor, not merely because the usual politicians were in charge then of Anglo-Land (with Churchill somewhat sidelined, only to be dug up after the outbreak of the War). We are now not in the aftermath of a huge recession, but enjoying record levels of low unemployment in the UK and Australia. There are no colonial empires to lose. And there is no obvious ‘embedded elite’ that is fighting a battle with rising socialism, certainly not in Australia or Canada.

So what is going on? Why are the marketeers now again so in vogue? And why only in Anglo-Land? What are their skills that were undervalued by the existing party machineries and why are those skills so much more important now than before? Essentially: why has Churchill returned?

I have many ideas, but none that really convince me. It’s a puzzle. Maybe it’s just a coincidence and the analogy is less good than it seems. Maybe Churchill was a one-off marketing genius who was going to make it in politics in any era and we should not look at his career for clues why we currently have so many lookalikes in Anglo-Land. Any good ideas?

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4 years ago

The rise of left- and now right-wing post modernism, which had its biggest influence in Anglo countries (why this is so is another story). The latter of these was interesting, because someone worked out that rather than push back against all the left-wing crazy ideas, the best antidote was the same strategy with right-wing ideas, which have always been appealing to some people because they potentially allow an even easier escape from reality than left-wing ideas (e.g., you are poor because some immigrant took your job, global warming is a communist conspiracy, vaccinations cause autism, …). Now everyone is told how smart and special they are from early childhood, there is also no need for them to check any bases for claims — they can do it themselves because they are very smart and there is the internet. You can know more about me on early childhood development and I can know more about you about economics! Wonderful! This is reinforced in some countries as their education system declines, and so you have more and more people that are simply susceptible to such nonsense — and it is easier to proliferate due to modern media.

So the basic problem is that if you can get rid of the idea there is truth, or even truth values, then all you have is unfounded opinion, and because everyone is special, and everyone is right (because there is no actual truth), the best person to tell you this is someone that most knows how to make you happy. This is what marketers do best — that’s what they’re employed to do. If you are poorly educated, or really arn’t very bright, you might well agree with them.

You can compare this to countries like France, where post-modernism never really hit. They have other crazies (communists and nationalists), which fill the void for people wanting to believe things that lack reality. In China, and most other poor countries, you have to see reality everyday in a way that you don’t in Western countries, so someone telling you how good life would be via some government change (or whatever) isn’t likely to convince you. Nothing will make your life better and that’s obvious. You also have religion to fill the void in many places, so you’re essentially told what to believe and again this works against non-religious marketeers.

paul frijters
paul frijters
4 years ago
Reply to  Conrad

Hi conrad,

thanks for having a go. Can you explain what you mean with this postmodernism thing? It has never made much sense to me because in my reading of things, no population ever could handle the truth and politicians everywhere have had to be liars to have a chance of making it, whether elected or otherwise. I wouldn’t know a country or time in history when truth was acceptable among leaders. Machiavelli in 1500 already said that it was imperative for rulers to appear upright, truthful, pious, etc., but could not afford to be any of those. He was right.

So I have a hard time buying the notion that the population is now less truthful to itself than before. However, maybe there is something to your notion of “truth values”, ie the degree to which they value the idea of one truth and their personal adherence to it. That sort of rings true to me when it comes to the US, Australia, and indeed increasingly the UK: anti-intellectualism indeed feel on the rise in all three (though it is hard to think of a good measure that shows this). Where do truth values come from though and why would they have changed in Anglo-Land?

4 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

I agree with you on the single focus idea, and that’s what I mean (the new truth for many is Science, which seems better than religion).

I don’t why Postmodernism caught on in Angloland so much (just that relativism above all breaks down the idea of worrying about the truth), especially because the antecedents came from from continental philosophers like Heidegger (perhaps something got lost in translation with all those pesky German words :) ). I would have also hoped that having a strong science culture would have helped, but the Brits have a remarkable scientific history and it didn’t help them.

One possibility is that it is just variation in the take-up of ideas. As someone that has worked in France a lot, it is pretty clear that many aspects of Anglo culture take forever to get there. So perhaps some of the education fads never made it for similar reasons. This would be especially so because they are clearly more conceptually complicated and have far fewer people thinking about them that other cultural things like e.g., low-carb diets. This also blocks the transfer of useful information incidentally — when I first went to France, they had Freudian theories of dyslexia (really) and one of my colleagues spent years getting rid of them (including I seem to remember speaking about it in French Parliament or similar).

Bert Lancaster
Bert Lancaster
4 years ago

Interesting ideas and I was just thinking myself before I read it that Boris seemed to see himself as a new, modern, incarnation of Churchill. As for ScoMo I think he is so far removed from the concerns of the ‘common’ people that he has no idea of how to do what is good for the country. The only positive thing I can think of to say about him is that he is keeping the Dutton away from real power. I think people of Dutton’s ilk would have been right at home in Nazi Germany. Rant rant!

David Walker
4 years ago

Paul, I’m afraid that your core thesis – that we’ve seen some important change in Anglo politicians away from law and economics training and towards marketing – doesn’t ring true for me. It doesn’t really dislodge an alternative two-part theory:

1 – Successful politicians have generally some instinctual grasp of marketing, and this has always been true. We can trace the tendency back as far as Julius Caesar’s assassination, which triggered a notorious public relations battle between Brutus and Mark Antony – neither of whom had formal marketing credentials.
2 – 2000 years after Caesar, political marketing is still generally handled by people without formal marketing credentials, and politics remarkably resists the power of marketing.

You make the unsurprising case that politicians are generally skilled at self-promotion. This certainly applies to the current Angle crop – but none of them appears to have any more formal qualifications in marketing than Mark Antony had. If it is true that today “any other skill or interest other than how to sell stuff seems a burden” for a political career, that should count as a surprise.
* Donald Trump has a Bachelor of Science in economics.
* Scott Morrison has a Bachelor of Science in applied economic geography. (He has described himself as a “marketer” from time to time, but has no formal training in marketing that I’m aware of.)
* Boris Johnson earned an honours degree after studying ancient literature and classical philosophy. (Anyone know what the degree was actually called?)

A look at previous politicians’ training also throws up rather a lot who never studied economics or law. Examples:
* Paul Keating not only never qualified in economics or law, but never qualified in any discipline at tertiary level; he left school at 14. You might consider removing him as your first example of someone who studied law and/or economics.
* George W. Bush never qualified in economics or law as far as I can tell. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, and later an MBA. You might also take him out of the list.
* Margaret Thatcher earned a Bachelor of Science honours degree specialising in X-ray crystallography.
* Gordon Brown’s degree was in history.
* Teresa May earned a Bachelor of Arts honours degree after reading geography.
* Kevin Rudd earned a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in Asian studies.

Even today, “marketing departments of political parties” don’t really exist (see this link). Advertising agencies are generally hired at election time; the rest of the time, the work is done by the politicians themselves and a few trusted staffers, with help from political consultancies. This is a pattern which has endured for a remarkably long time.

So politicians are skilled amateur marketers. And they always have been. If you don’t like the Caesar example, try Harold Wilson, a brilliant historian who was famously one of the youngest Oxford dons of the 20th century. Viewers of The Crown may remember the scene in which Wilson explains to Queen Elizabeth that he rose to the top of 1960s British politics because he understood television.

It seems to me not only that marketers haven’t infiltrated politics, but that two of the current Anglo crop have defied conventional marketing wisdom more thoroughly than even Churchill. Professional marketers, like professional political consultants, mostly didn’t want to touch Trump with a bargepole. He succeeded not because of professional marketers, but in the face of their ridicule. The same is somewhat true of Johnson.

If we want politicians who aren’t cookie-cutter products of a sanitised marketing discipline … well, we have them now as much as in the past. Even if (like me) you don’t like the policies they’re pursuing, this may be something to celebrate.

As usual, corrections to my myopic views, superficial readings and factual errors are welcome.

paul frijters
paul frijters
4 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Hi David,

yeah, fair challenge, though I might mention that Theresa May did economic geography and I see Keating as a self-taught economist (he was the Treasurer and needed to catch up). It is true that Trump can also be claimed as an economist, and also agreed that not all politicians in Anglo-Land fit the law-econ mainstream. That’s why I didn’t count Rudd or Thatcher in my original list of law-econ people: the recognised route is simply the most prevalent one.

Still, I think its fair to call Trump a marketer as he has been professionally busy in show-biz for a long time before entering politics. And, while Bojo indeed followed the classical Eton/Oxbridge education route, he too has been a professional seller of ideas and himself (as a journo). I didn’t claim that marketing firms would hire them, but its still fair to call them marketers I think. Just as I included Churchill in the list of marketeers, even though he want to military college and then worked as a journo.

So its a matter of degrees: relative to the more recent Anglo generation and outside of Anglo-land, the current crop is unusual for the degree to which they are professional marketers and havent displayed any other notable skill. After all, who in the previous generation was involved in many years professionally as a sales person? The puzzle is whether this is coincidence or something specific to our time and Anglo-Land. Wouldn’t you agree?

Nicholas Gruen
4 years ago

I’m a fan of Churchill, perhaps wrongly – he certainly did some terrible things, for instance, regarding India.

But, even if you think he was bad news, it seems fairly clear that he was a person of considerable substance. Boris and Donald are bright enough but Donald is a psychological wreck and Boris doesn’t seem able to apply himself to anything much – and leaves a trail strewn with people who have a low regard for him – as does Trump. That’s not true of Churchill. Many people who worked for him thought very highly of him.

Here’s my favourite take on #ScoMo

paul frijters
paul frijters
4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I think you underestimate how much Churchill was regarded as a buffoon for much of his career. When he was the age of Bojo now, Churchill had done more damage and was more derided than Boris is now. The Brits are odd in this regard: certain people are allowed to do tremendous damage and can still come back. They get get millions killed and still can be at the table. Competence counts for very little. Stories count much more.
I know very little about ScoMo, so cant comment, though I doubt it matters what anyone close to him thing of him. Made little difference to Rudd.

Nicholas Gruen
4 years ago

Thanks Paul, but if you were responding to my point, I was addressing myself to the merits – not his reputation.