Where are the politicians in white suits?

Stourbridge Glass 060

I want to take the unpopular step of expressing sympathy for those politicians who are soon to be standing for election. The lucky ones are those who are essentially representing a single issue to the public. I imagine that so long as Nicola Sturgeon, SNP, advocates Scottish independence, and Nigel Farage, UKIP, promises to withdraw the UK from the European Union then their supporters are likely to be content, whatever the other policies of their parties might be. Consequently my real sympathy is given to those men and women who could possibly be members of a future government where they would eventually have to function within the restrictive discipline of economic practical reality.

It is natural that with a general election rapidly approaching we are hearing a great deal about party politics at the moment. Correspondingly we are also exposed to the opinions, in all forms of media, of those members of the public who are anxious to express their own solutions to contemporary problems, solutions which in my view generally range from the barely possible to the totally quixotic. It is clear what issues arouse particular concern: the NHS, zero hours contracts, the housing crisis, spending on defence, and the costs of higher education. The concern is perfectly understandable. There is probably no way of stopping voters from acting in what they perceive to be their self-interest, but surely we can at least expect enlightened self-interest? Anyway these are the aspects of the current campaign that I find especially worrying.

Not in my backyard

We all know that ultimately some form of very long-term storage will need to be found for high level radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power production. This situation would still apply if every power station were to be shut down tomorrow. Since nobody can predict how world events will unfold over the next few million years some form of permanently sealed underground storage in very stable rocks seems to be the best plan available, with each producer state being responsible for its own waste. In practice few voters support this concept if they live in geologically plausible areas of the country, which rather forces their local parliamentary hopefuls to be economical with the truth about their own views if they hope to top the poll. The same process applies to the construction of prisons, on-shore oil wells, remand centres, waste recycling sites, motorways, and high speed train lines. Clearly it is reasonable to have a public debate over whether these facilities are required at all, but if they are could we agree to leave their exact location to those in the best position to judge?

Something must be done

It is depressingly easy to find states whose populations are having to endure the most appalling privations as the result of civil war, extremely weak political regimes, bitter struggles between two or more religious groups, adverse climactic conditions, or all of the above. Syria is an obvious current example. Evidently something must be done, but if British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything at all it is that very often nothing can be done at a cost in money, injuries, and lives which we are even remotely prepared to pay. So please don’t automatically refuse to vote for an election candidate who is frank enough to admit to our incapacity. Correspondingly if, as a voter, you believe that your government must take action to remedy some international crisis then have the courage to make it clear exactly what you think that action should be. I’m very much afraid that if you do then the inadequacy or impossibility of your own suggestions may well become immediately obvious.

Perfectly sensible?

When a law or system of regulation is changed there will always be gainers and losers as a result. The skill of government is evidently to create as small a number of losers as possible, and to try to arrange that the heaviest burdens fall on those most able to bear them. Many voters, knowingly or otherwise, subscribe to the perfect solution fallacy. Essentially this states that if any action is not perfect it is not worth taking at all. An example easily demonstrates its irrationality. Penicillin is an effective and safe antibiotic but it is not always effective, and a very small number of people experience severe side-effects after taking the drug. It would not be rational to refuse to employ penicillin until an alternative is found which is always effective and never causes harm. Politicians who have to make decisions about pressing situations almost always cannot afford to wait for 100% certainty or effectiveness; action on climate change is a good current example.

The best is the enemy of the good

We all know that in any one season there will be a squad judged, by results, to be the premiership’s best football team, but at any one time we cannot all support it. It is perfectly understandable that governments will wish to set minimum standards of acceptability for institutions such as colleges, schools and hospitals but within those standards there will still be variability. It is not reasonable for voters to demand that their elected representatives enable them, or their families, to attend the nation’s best hospital or best school since that it is manifestly impossible. Demanding that local institutions meet, or exceed, agreed minimum standards is however perfectly reasonable.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t

It is very easy for politicians to be placed in a situation where they cannot say the right thing whatever position they adopt. When I studied archaeology I was warned to avoid cultural imperialism, in other words not to regard my own culture as the yardstick by which others are judged. If politicians believe in, and act on, this principle then they are likely to be accounted good liberals. Unfortunately foreign cultures tend to have certain rather egregiously illiberal habits like the death penalty, cutting the hands off thieves, forced marriage, slavery, stoning adulterers, and FGM. If we wish to criticise those habits, and they are truly dreadful, politicians have to have the courage to say that, in these respects at least, our own culture and system of justice is preferable. They really cannot have it both ways and voters must not expect them to even if, by MPs expressing their honest views, minority groups in the constituency are upset.

Don’t mention the war

Well, except when they meet Angela Merkel, it is probably safe for a UK politicians to do this, but there are several other topics that it is unwise for them to mention. At least until recently the control, or otherwise, of immigration to the UK was one of these issues. The big risk here is that if an area of life is designated a ‘no-go’ area for mainstream discussion then it will be given over entirely to extreme voices. Alistair Campbell (remember him?) said of Tony Blair’s administration: ‘we don’t do God’. I see no reason at all why a politician should not make clear his or her faith, or lack of faith. But voters should think very carefully indeed before including such a profession among the yardsticks against which candidates are measured.

Hard cases make bad laws

Recently an elderly man was overwhelmed by the demands from his local authority for repayment of a large debt incurred when the authority over-paid him various benefits. The man concerned was eventually sent a £800 bill which he could not possibly have settled, and which triggered an episode of depression that led to his taking his own life. Some press reports used headlines such as ‘Government benefits slash led to pensioner’s death’. The local council (headed by a different political party as it happened) miscalculated the benefit and did not sensitively respond to increasingly desperate enquiries. But the council was under great pressure at the time with many similar situations, and it had no special mechanism for dealing with the vulnerable. The victim never contacted the CAB and his relatives, who later stated that they would have been perfectly willing to help him, did not learn about the situation until after his death. To what extent are a citizen’s problems his or her own responsibility, or a family responsibility, or the state’s responsibility? Is it ever wise or fair to generalise from individual occurrences however tragic? Does the hugely expensive benefits system act as an essential safety net or does it treat adults as irresponsible children incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions? I don’t have any simple answers to these questions, but no view is automatically worthless or inhumane.

The end justifies the means

Although you may feel strongly about the outcome of the next election I hope that common decency will place some restraints on your enthusiasm to obtain the desired result. At the moment one national newspaper is running an absurd campaign on what it is pleased to call Ed Miliband’s ‘complicated love-life’. The truth seems to be that he was an attractive and engaging young man who found popularity with several equally attractive and engaging young ladies. On one occasion he met a future girl-friend at a social function hosted by a previous girl-friend. Big deal! Well admittedly Ed’s romantic affairs are marginally more complicated than mine were but this is incredibly feeble and worthless stuff when compared to the major problems with which any PM will have to deal.

One of these problems is the maintenance, or abandonment, of the UK’s independent Trident deterrent. Both sides on this debate have powerful arguments but I am sorry that the disarmers from the left sometimes claim that the Conservative Party are enthusiastic in their wish to maintain the deterrent. The truth is that nuclear weapons have been reluctantly supported, rightly or wrongly, by all post-war governments, and in general the UK is the least enthusiastic nuclear power in history.

Reaching conclusions

What will be the reasons for making your decision in a month’s time? Well some of you may be single issue voters of the type mentioned in my first paragraph, so your decision is made. As far as the rest of you are concerned I hope you will reflect, before casting your vote, that politics is ‘the art of the possible’ in which there may be no good options only least bad ones. I’ve tried to make my remarks neutral in party political terms. In case any reader thinks I have been insufficiently unprejudiced may I reassure them by saying that I have exercised my franchise in every general and parliamentary by-election since I was eighteen and have never yet elected a successful candidate. So my support is seriously not worth canvassing, though I would love to vote for someone in that white suit.

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