The older I get the more I realise just how stupid and incompetent so many people in very high positions really are, and have been throughout history. It seems to me incredible that these people have been appointed or promoted far beyond their level of capability – and retain their positions even after it has become apparent that they are incompetent and / or stupid to a degree almost beyond the imagination to comprehend.
An example of this includes many of the Generals and those associated with the royal families and politicians of all sides and services in command of the operations in the two World Wars of the twentieth century, who managed to wipe out millions of people, both military and civilian, by their outrageous incompetence. These leaders and members of the ruling elite are those who we commoners are expected to trust with our lives and yet, time and time again, they have led us like lambs to the slaughter – often literally. Many instants of this are recorded on the superbly researched and written book entitled Catastrophe by Max Hastings, which tells the story of the first year of World War One, 1914, probably the most interesting, and complex, part of this dreadful war which, miraculously, both my grandfather's survived – although at least one of our family was lost.
Of course, in the UK in particular, most of these people have come from wealthy families well able to afford the school fees charged by the top private schools where, as children, connections are made that last them a lifetime. Belonging to the old school tie network guarantees one a role in a very senior position regardless of competency. The situation in most other countries is similar – unless you go to the right school and are associated with the right families, you won't be going anywhere in your career. This is not to say that all private school pupils excel in later life, however being a member of The Establishment helps even at lower levels (particularly if one joins the military as an officer – a Commission in the RN, for example, used to provide entry into The Establishment to a large extent – and probably still does if one rises to senior officer status) where even the really brain-dead still find good jobs, usually where there is little, if any, responsibility, where others can do the work whilst they get the praise for a job well done – which is where 'advisors' can be utilised – and take the blame if their advice is wrong. Even at very high levels, 'advisors' can be utilised - and blamed for helping their leader get it wrong.
For example, how do people such as the late Louis Mountbatten (often alleged to have been somewhat incompetent) rise from Midshipman (in 1916) to positions such as Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia theatre and then acting full Admiral in WWII, and to become Viceroy of India and the first Governor-General (1947/48) then, later, Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord?
July 1916 Midshipman
March 1942 Promoted to the acting rank of Vice Admiral (missing out the rank of Rear Admiral) and given the honorary ranks of Lieutenant General and Air Marshal so he would have the necessary authority to carry out his duties in Combined Operations - and was placed in the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Why was this permitted? These honorary ranks are a number of ranks higher than his real position. There must have been other people due for promotion in a higher position, and with greater experience and ability, whom he overtook on the ladder towards the top.
August 1942 He was a key player in the planning of the raid on Dieppe. The raid was a notable failure, with casualties of almost 60 %, the great majority of whom were Canadians.
August 1943 Acting full Admiral – note, another acting promotion. Following the failure of Dieppe, why was this promotion deemed acceptable?
May 1946 The South East Asia Command was disbanded and Mountbatten returned to the UK with the substantive rank of Rear Admiral (the rank he skipped to become acting Vice Admiral).
1947/48 Viceroy of India and the first Governor-General
1950–52 Fourth Sea Lord
1952–54 Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet.
1956 Admiral of the Fleet – so he's now gone, in just ten years, from a relatively lowly Rear Admiral (which he'd originally skipped) to Admiral of the Fleet, via acting ranks of Vice Admiral and full Admiral. This is the most senior position in the Royal Navy – equivalent to Field Marshal (Army) or Marshal of the Royal Air Force and four ranks above Commodore.
1954 (1955 in some sources) to 1959
1959-1965 Chief of the United Kingdom Defence Staff and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee
Regardless of whether or not he was incompetent; who else other than one from his elite background could have jumped through senior ranks and positions like this (his rise through the junior ranks was much slower)? He quickly rose to the top at breath taking speed purely and simply because he was born a Prince with all the royal family and political connections needed to get there and stay there – he was a favourite of Winston Churchill, another example of someone from an elite background who was promoted to the top jobs. Even the highly regarded brilliant academic and soldier (and, later, politician), Enoch Powell, only managed to rise to Brigadier (equivalent to Commodore in the Royal Navy) during World War Two – he was, after all, a commoner, so did well to get that far, this being a measure of his abilities (and the loss of officers due to their becoming casualties) rather than background.
Following this date, other promotions and senior positions were given to him (Mountbatten) that no one outside the elite or with the right connections and wealth could have achieved.
Many other leaders have risen through the ranks to levels far beyond their real capabilities to hold, yet that hasn't stopped their career advancement, let alone their social advancement, despite severe shortcomings that would have brought about disgrace for lesser mortals – had they been able to attain these positions in the first place, which is highly unlikely. Members of this elite class have also gone to great lengths to 'protect their own'. Very prominent people of the elite class have frequently gone unpunished for misdeeds that for commoners would have resulted in harsh penalties.
In World War One in particular, some Generals and other very senior officers were seen running away (often on horseback) from the battle (or they kept their HQ a great distance from the battle) and attributed this to some form of illness, such as a nervous breakdown, and got away with this outright cowardice whereas many ordinary soldiers were executed for similar 'crimes'. It also goes without saying, perhaps, that many senior officers gave orders that were entirely ridiculous and which brought about the slaughter of millions of men whilst they kept their distance as far away from the battle as possible. Other senior officers were foolishly courageous, carrying out ill-planned futile attacks with no thought to their own lives or those under their command, but also with no thought as to the consequences of their heroic, but stupid, action, let alone as to whom might take command after they'd been killed – as many of them were.
Being included in The Establishment also means you are allowed to get away with things that other mere mortals would never even attempt. I well remember attending the Royal Geographic Society in London one weekend for a series of talks by prominent explorers / adventurers. Lord John Hunt, one of The Establishment showed up to give a talk and, by his own admission, had no notes and was totally unprepared. He spent his lecture time waffling on boringly (as do many of his kind) to the extent that everyone was highly relieved when he shut-up and went home. Thankfully, the real star of the event was Rebecca Stephens (educated in a state school and trained as a journalist), the first lady to climb Mt. Everest as well as other adventurous feats. She gave a presentation that had us spellbound and wanting for more. What a contrast with Hunt.
Another of The Establishment, Robert Falcon Scott, otherwise known as Scott of the Antarctic, was a Commander in the Royal Navy and promoted to Captain as an incentive to explore the Antarctic and be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott had no experience of polar exploration whatsoever so visited Fridtjof Nansen, probably the greatest polar explorer of all time. Scott asked Nansen for his advice, which was duly given – and then ignored it! One key piece of advice that Scott rejected was to use dogs for pulling sledges. What did Scott use? Horses, and man-power! Horses are totally unsuited to the polar climate whereas dogs, such as Huskies, don't have a problem. What foolishness. Being from The Establishment meant that he always knew better than a mere mortal – even when he knew nothing. So, Scott lost the race to the South Pole against a well-prepared Amundsen and his dogs, but is still regarded as a hero, albeit a dead one, instead of a stupid failure. Being one of The Establishment means that he cannot be a failure, of course.
One of my former colleagues, a junior officer in the merchant navy, once told me that the most important part of attending a private school was not the education you received but the contacts you made. He had opted out of his elitist background hence him being in a fairly lowly position in the merchant navy or, in his words, becoming the black sheep of the family.
The same holds true in France, according to another former colleague, a Frenchman, where, unless you attend one of the top private schools you've got no chance of making it to a senior position. I might add that this colleague was a particularly bright young man in an 'ordinary' professional position with no chance to going to the top regardless of his skills and ability.
One of the bonuses of attending an elite school is that you are always brought up to be 'one of the elite'. You are always told that you are above the rest of humanity, regardless of your abilities. Your self-confidence is boosted to such a high level that you have no doubts at all about your ability to take on the top positions, whereas the rest of us have our self-confidence knocked out of us at a very early age as we are constantly reminded that we are from the lower echelons of society. One of my primary teachers, who was my sole teacher for two consecutive years, was such an outright bully that I am still suffering from a lack of self-confidence more than sixty years later. During those two years, I went from near the top of the class to the bottom – and stayed there.
It's not just about money. When I was a boy and wanted something to be purchased for me, my father often used to say "Who do you think I am; Rothschild?". Of course, I didn't know anything about the Rothschild family in those days but I understand they came from a very modest, commoner background, to become one of the wealthiest families in the world. I also understand that they were never truly accepted, socially, by the elite because they were not of that class. Many of the decorations and other awards they received were because they had made a specific point of asking for them, practically pleading with those of the ruling class to be given them in recognition of the banking services they had rendered.
So much is made of discrimination these days, whether it be racial, religious, sexual, gender or age, yet one never hears very much about 'class' discrimination, a discrimination which is never brought to a court of law – and yet this is a fact of real life as important as any of the other discriminatory factors. Why should this be? Because those in senior positions don't want it to be spoken about. After all, it's not what you know that's important – it's who you know – and which class you were born into!
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