For those of you who haven't been following, this is how it goes: government appoints James Caan, a self-made millionaire and former judge on Dragon's Den, to be its "social mobility tsar". In his first public statement Caan makes the bold and admirable assertion that parents should resist the instinct to help their children up the career ladder:
"I fully understand that parents would want to do the best for their children. But...I don't think it's good to create a society where people get jobs based on who you know rather than what you can do."
It immediately transpires that Caan's two daughters both work for him. Cue a joyful and for once quite justified bout of jeering from the press.
I like James Caan. He comes from a humble background: his family moved to Britain from Pakistan when he was two and his father set up a clothing business in Brick Lane. Rather than work for the family business he decided early on to strike out on his own, left school early and worked in a series of jobs he hated before setting up a recruitment company and selling it for millions. On Dragon's Den he provided an attractive contrast to his neighbour Duncan Ballantyne. Whereas Ballantyne was all scowls and blunt edges, Caan exhibited a regal serenity. After the others had thrashed out the arguments between them he would languidly scratch his beard, smile thinly, and say, "Let me tell you where I am," as if pouring honey into mint tea.
Having said that, let me tell you where I am. Caan is clearly being foolish. It's not that he was hiding anything - his daughters' employment was public knowledge. He just appears to have a massive blind spot when it comes to seeing any inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. That is, he appears to be a stranger to cognitive dissonance, which perhaps explains that unruffled demeanour. His subsequent attempts to justify himself have made things worse:
"The fact is that parents will always have the innate feeling to help their children into jobs. I'm no different."
Yes, James, but the day before you were suggesting that parents ought to resist this innate feeling. That's a hard position to take when you're incapable of doing so yourself.
In the case of his daughter Jenna, he explains that she "had to go through a rigorous recruitment process with a number of different candidates and demonstrate her own abilities." Yes, and I'm sure everyone involved in the process was able to completely remove from their minds the fact that they were interviewing THE BOSS'S DAUGHTER. As for Hanah, she won fair and square against another hopeful: "Both candidates applied for jobs and submitted a CV and applied for the role using the same recruitment process."
The self-delusion is staggering. But then, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be self-deceiving than the rest of us. You need massive over-confidence to start a business which rationally you know is likely to fail. People who rise to the top in highly competitive fields are those who most adept at pretending the world is just the way they want it to be (or that if it isn't, they can make it so). That mindset, when combined with genuine talent, is great if you're in business or sport, but it's less useful in government, where cool analysis and patience are more important.
Caan was miscast, and also badly advised: if you're going to bring in outsiders, you need to make sure they have media minders who can spot disasters like this from a mile off. In fact, the person who ought to feel most embarrassed about this isn't Caan, but Nick Clegg, who was behind the appointment. This government's habit of giving celebrities jobs reveals its essentially shallow, craven, anything-for-a headline character. Clegg claims to care deeply about the problem of social mobility. That's why he handed it to that bloke off the TV.
Mary Portas was another "tsar". This fatuous term, borrowed from America (and before that, imperial Russia), is meant to sound impressive but only points to the powerlessness of the position. Appointed to fix Britain's high streets, Portas came up with a scheme that, whether because it's innately impractical or because the government failed to support it, has failed. But so what - she's on to the next thing. Her career was never at stake. I say this not to criticise Portas, but to demonstrate the utter futility of giving someone a government role, knowing that they have neither the right abilities nor the motivation to see it through, just because their face is familiar to readers of Heat magazine.
The real problem the Caan affair exposes isn't nepotism. It's celebism.