Just back from Zimbabwe where ‘living on rations’ has had a certain accuracy in the last couple of years and here we are in the silly season with an MP getting pilloried in the London papers for an inappropriate remark. I probably should be as ‘angry’ as the rest of the country apparently is (how do the newspapers know these things?), but I’m not. Instead, I’m watching England get embarrassed by Holland in the football friendly and dreading the inevitable ‘angry’ critique in tomorrow’s papers – written by people who probably couldn’t run to catch a bus.
But back to dodgy MPs. I have never been a fan of Alan Duncan – he’s in a party I don’t trust and has been playing the camp/risque jester ever since he came out as gay. I think I probably preferred him when he was trying to be a shockingly right-wing but serious politician. He comes over as the sort of smug politician who probably deserves all he gets – but I don’t know him and he does have a reputation for being charming.
But, I really dislike the way he has been stitched up today. He was secretly recorded on the House of Commons terrace making a serious point (whether we agree with him or not) about the calibre of people likely to want to enter Parliament in the future and making a not-very-good joke about MPs now ‘living on rations’. Of course, this has been picked up and milked for all it is worth – telling us that we must be shocked by this MP’s arrogance.
What worries me about this is the likelihood that no MP will want to say anything in future that might be funny or not ‘fully formed’. Andrew Marr, in his excellent book My Trade: A Short history of British Journalism, comments as follows about the danger of forcing politicians to keep their real thoughts to themselves and not take the risk of rehearsing arguments openly in order to test or move on their own thinking:
If serious, difficult arguments are misrepresented by the media, then the whole point of political debate – which is that bad arguments are answered, and driven out by better ones, and so good governance advances – is destroyed. The twisting of politicians’ views by hostile newspapers infuriates them but, more to the point, persuades them to keep their real thoughts to themselves and so robs the rest of us of thoughts we may need to read about… Instant publicity can kill honest argument. Government requires full frankness; and frankness can look bad in print.
Now, Duncan’s silly remark was hardly a matter of State importance, let alone direct governance. But Marr’s point is apposite. He continues:
If you are in charge of a business, or part of government, or even if you are talking to a partner about your future plans, you need to be able to think and talk a little wildly, to test extreme positions and unlikely ideas, to speculate and joke, before you settle on a course of action. Almost all of us say things in private which we would be aghast to hear loudly quoted among our friends and neighbours… Without speculation there can be no good decision-taking: yet such is the authority and importance of government that its speculation, if revealed, can cause people to riot, foreign governments to protest, and ministers to seem very foolish indeed. The ill-considered private joke becomes a deadly headline. The wild surmise becomes a plan. The nose-tapping warning becomes a public libel. If we were all publicly judged on our private, intimate conversations, we would dry into inner silence, and the same is true of governments. (p.137ff)
Marr’s observations about governments are well worth reading for its own sake, but the point here is simply that we seem to have created (or be in the process of creating) a culture in which arguments can only be articulated when fully formed and that public people cannot be seen to change their mind because, having tested an idea or argument, they have learned from the process and moved on. The risky spontaneity of the joke is suppressed for fear of how it might be reported if overheard. Speech becomes constrained by fear. This cannot be healthy. Would it not be healthier if public servants such as politicians (and bishops, for that matter – which is what I think my blogging is all about) were to model how serious people can develop or change their mind by open consideration of arguments. Instead, a politician who changes his or her mind is pilloried for being inconsistent, unreliable or stupid.
Alan Duncan has never had my sympathy for anything and he perhaps should know better than to let his guard down the way he did. But the wider issue behind the lack of a private space for letting the guard down is also worrying.
I don’t want to flog the point ad nauseam. But I feel the way the Anglican Communion is dealing with some of its conflicts reflects this problem: when the battle lines are drawn, where is the space for people to be persuaded by another argument into intelligently moving or moderating their position, testing the arguments by articulating them?
Perhaps we just need people to stop playing the game, hang the consequences and try out their developing views anyway. I think such an approach would be evidence of what might in other spheres of life be called ‘maturity’.