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Wrong questions

Posted by Richard Thursday, December 15, 2011


Stephen Glover asks whether there ever been a time when so many politicians were both stupid and dishonest. One can understand why he does so - it is terribly attractive to mark down contemporary political behaviour in this way. But such analysis is also shallow and self-defeating.

Undoubtedly, politics has its fair share of rogues and liars, but I suspect that the percentage might be representative of the population as a whole. Not many more nor less than average. And there are some extremely bright cookies in politics – yet their behaviour is often indistinguishable from their thicker brethren.

Something more than Glover's superficial diagnosis must therefore be sought. Referring yet again to the Hitchens piece, there we do see an attempt to understand what is going on.

In my view though, there can be no better explanation than what we call the "bubble effect". This is shorthand for the complex and composite effects of geographical and spiritual isolation and tribal loyalties – the herd instinct combined with crowd psychology, reinforced by the transparent walls that separate the political claque from the rest of humanity.

However, what we might also be seeing is the cumulative effect of the deterioration of the education system. One is continually struck, in the current parliament, by the low grade of MPs, of the intellectual paucity of their contributions and their general ignorance.

It is common in human affairs to harp back to golden ages, and to look at the past through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, but – with my historian hat on, having read hundreds of debates in parliament, going back to the 1920s – the quality of past debates is immeasurably better.

But now, one is confronted by an interesting contrast. Having recently undergone major surgery, I could not fail to be impressed by the skills of the care team that brought me back to health. Mostly young people in their late twenties and thirties, their professionalism, competence, understanding and humanity was magnificent.

I came away from that experience musing that there cannot be much wrong with a nation that can assemble teams of that quality, and put them to work in a productive environment – delivering better results than ever before, as the improved survival rates so happily show.

Then you look at politics, where the dross aggregates, and get completely the opposite impression. The quality of output declines and the sense of detachment and disillusionment increases. Glover does not even get near to identifying the problems – but then, as we have so often observed, what is happening in politics is mirrored in journalism. Dross meets dross, so to speak.

Quite what we do about this, is not clear, but it is axiomatic that, in order to solve a problem, one needs to identify accurately what is going wrong. If that is left to Glover, we will not succeed.

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