Schemers or Dreamers? The role of political advisers

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, Auditorium 2Battle for Democracy


We have a romantic, if not entirely positive, view of political advisers. They are often portrayed as wise, extremely powerful, and the true ‘power behind the throne’. In the wildly popular TV series Game of Thrones, it is Peter Dinklage’s character, Tyrion Lannister, who repeatedly plots, thinks and talks his way to victory – taking on actual kings, queens, and mighty armies. Lannister has notable parallels with one of history’s most famous political advisers: William Cecil, aka Lord Burghley. Cecil was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s closest confidantes. Through his efforts to unify the British Isles, build up the Royal Navy and see off the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots, Cecil ably demonstrated the history-making power that can be wielded through behind-the-scenes intrigue and the art of persuasion.

Modern, real-life advisers have always come under scrutiny. Alastair Campbell, for example, is still widely recognised as a key architect of New Labour and his role in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ in the run-up to the Iraq war is still fiercely contested. But Brexit has thrown up new questions about the role of advisers. First it was Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s Europe adviser and chief Brexit negotiator, who frequently attracted the ire of Brexiteers. More recently, Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s special political adviser, has been viewed as everything from a tactical mastermind to a man out of his depth – but either way has been as much a subject of conversation as the Prime Minister himself. Likewise, the influence of Seamus Milne, Corbyn’s director of communications and strategy, has been a subject of intense debate, especially with regards to Corbyn’s evolving Brexit policies.

But what really is the role of political advisers? Does a focus on advisers let politicians off the hook and play into a conspiratorial view of politics and political power? Furthermore, people seem perfectly happy to embrace the role of advisers when they align with their views. For example, many critics of President Trump have expressed gratitude that his advisers are there to constrain him. Perhaps more directly, the predominance of expert advisers seems to reflect a version of politics where facts, technical fixes, and expertise are privileged over big, transformative ideas – in short, a technocratic politics.

With populist movements around the world demanding more accountability and ideas-driven politics, is it time to break free from a model of politics where every major decision is filtered through numerous advisers, experts and strategists? Or should we welcome the way that advisers act as a sounding board for politicians, allowing free and open discussion and testing of ideas before they are made public? Is the role of advisers overstated, or should we scrutinise them just as much as we do elected officials? What can we learn from the successes of historical advisers like Lord Burghley, and what should the true role of the adviser be?