Some Thoughts on an Old Metaphor: From the Ship of State to The Armada of State

In Book VI of The Republic, Plato likened governing a polis to piloting a ship. Plato’s interlocutor, Socrates, invoked this ancient parable to explain why the ship’s unassuming star-gazing navigator represents the philosopher-king who possesses the best qualities — namely, the knowledge — to pilot the ship, despite his not vying for the role against the other squabbling sailors, who represent demagogues. Thence comes the age-old observation that those best suited to wield political power are normally those who do not seek it or actively avoid it.

This has since become known as the “Ship of State” metaphor. I suppose that the appellation of “State” in “The Ship of State” came later than Plato, because, as far as I understand, the meaning and use of “the State” as a word for a type of polity dates from Early Modern Europe — and perhaps even from Machiavelli himself, who popularized the term in The Prince (“estato” in Italian) — rather than from the Ancients and the third century BC when Plato and Aristotle wrote.

A thought occurred to me recently which seems worth sharing. I’m not invoking the Ship of State metaphor in the way that Plato did (as an allegory for the philosopher-king and good government); instead, I’m invoking the superficial use of the metaphor and looking at the State itself rather than at the qualities necessary for the captain who would pilot the ship most ably of all those who vie to steer it.

The modern bureaucratic state, probably since at least after the First World War and certainly after the Second World War in the West, has burst the bounds of the “Ship of State” metaphor as it increased in complexity. Instead, an “Armada of State” would better represent the scope, size, complexity — and, crucially, the capacity for policy incoherence — of the modern welfare, regulatory state.

In this bastardized analogy of the Armada of State, which I envision as a carrier fleet, the aircraft carrier would represent the office of the president, in a presidential republic, or the office of prime minister and central agencies in a parliamentary system. The Sovereign in a constitutional monarchy or the non-executive president in a parliamentary republic would remain on-shore. Destroyers, cruisers, and frigates would then represent the executive departments and agencies of various sizes. The larger departments like Foreign Affairs, National Defence, and Justice would be destroyers, while the more nimble and innovative science-based departments like Natural Resources and Health would be cruisers or frigates. Shared Services Canada and Public Works and Government Services would be supply ships. And submarines would represent the various internal and external intelligence agencies, since most of their activities remain unseen and unknown.

The Armada of State illustrates not only the manifest complexity and scope of the modern State, but also the problems which result from that complexity: with so many ships, some of them can stray off course, or separate ships within the armada could work at cross purposes. As Bouckhaert et al put it, “Government programmes sometimes overlap, duplicate, or even contradict, each other.”[1] The Armada of State could thus represent what political scientists sometimes call “policy incoherence.”

Trinity College Dublin defines policy coherence as eliminating the inherent contradictions; in this analogy, policy coherence would mean that all the ships within the Armada of State  follow the same course and maintain formation:

Policy Coherence is defined by the OECD as the systematic promotion of mutually reinforcing policy actions across government departments and agencies creating synergies towards achieving the agreed objectives. Within national governments, policy coherence issues arise between different types of public policies, between different levels of government, between different stakeholders and at an international level.[2]

In this example, Trinity College Dublin’s website points out how the protectionism Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union harms the economies of developing countries, which contradicts the EU’s other stated policy goals in international development. The same principle applies to any State. In Canada, we express policy coherence as the “whole-of-government approach”the British speak of “joined up government.”

Bringing the various ships of the Armada of State into line in order to accomplish a singular goal would also require oversight; in the Canadian context, Mike Moffat and Hannah Rasmussen argue that we need Parliamentary Coherence Officer, analogous to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to report on, and make recommendations to improve, policy coherence.[3] They point to small examples, like how the departments can’t even agree on a standardized form for writing the dates, whether it be year-month-day, day-month-year, or whatever. Of course, a Parliamentary Coherence Officer analogous to the Parliamentary Budget Officer would report to Parliament through the Parliamentary Librarian, not via a Minister of the Crown, would form part of the Library and Parliament, and thus fall outside of the executive civil service and lack the authority to force responsible Ministers to standardize policies and reduce incoherence. While they acknowledge that “There is a risk that the government ignores the work of the OPCO,” they should also acknowledge the corollary that only PCO or Treasury Board could implement directives on policy coherence across the civil service.

While the best captain of Plato’s Ship of State would be the knowledgeable celestial navigator, the philosopher-king, perhaps the ideal commodore of the aircraft carrier of the Armada of State would be more of a Machiavellian pragmatist who can persuade the other ships to fall in line and muddle through the inevitable inconsistencies which do arise from time to time.

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[1] Geert Bouckhaert et al., The Coordination of Public Sector Organizations: Shifting Patterns of Public Management (New York: Palgrave-Macmillian, 2010), 28.

[2] Trinity College Dublin, “Policy Coherence and Development: What Is Policy Coherence?” 25 August 2010.

[3] Mike Moffatt and Hannah Rasmussen, “Big Idea: Create a Parliamentary Coherence Office and Officer,” Canada 2020, 24 October 2016.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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