Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Why is politics sometimes so dumb?

One thing that was missed in all the torrents of comment about David Cameron's speech on 'multiculturalism' was this: it just wasn't very good.

Now one can debate the pros and cons of this issue until one is blue in the face - watching the actual speech on YouTube might be a start. Some Conservatives are trying to grapple with some of the most difficult issues that face a modern society - pressing metaphors and similes, and just about everything to hand, into use. But what I noticed, as a stick-in-the-mud academic, was that it was (how shall one put this?) a bit shoddy.

The Prime Minister is in what Americans call the 'bully pulpit' - or in Barack Obama's case, after the recent shootings in Tuscon, the 'Angel's pulpit', trying to draw the nation together with words. Heads of state and government can sometimes heal or inspire with words more than deeds. If you don't want to think of Churchill's stirring oratory in 1940-42, one can get down into 'normal' politics and read John Major's words about the death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994. 'An opponent, but not an enemy' still rings in my ears at least.

The Prime Minister's speech didn't do very well by these standards. As Sunny Hundal points out over on Liberal Conspiracy, it sought to say that 'extremist groups' wouldn't be funded by the UK government (they aren't now, by the way), and it posited a world in which we should act against 'hate speech' in the defence of civil liberties (a non-sequitur if ever there was one). As Gladstone once put, the strongest bulwark of freedom is the breasts of free men.

A truly 'muscular liberal' such as Gladstone would simply have shook his head sadly at this effort. It might have been toughtful - in patches it was - but in the end it was a bit of an intellectual non-event.

Before anyone gets too arrogant about this (academics least of all) it's worth wondering why this might be. In fact, I think it's obvious that since 1945 the work of government and the demands on our leaders have grown exponentially, and their human abilities of course have not bounded ahead to keep up. The conclusion of the book I'm completing right now, Governing Post-War Britain, will have much to say on this. Alec Cairncross, Chief Economic Advisor to Her Majesty's Government, compared Whitehall to a 'looney bin' in rather un-PC comments after he'd left the civil service; one of Labour's 1960s 'irregulars', (nor Sir) Samuel Brittan, records in his forthcoming diaries that his overwhelming impression was of tiredness, lack of control, and then chaos.

It's still like that, as the demands rise on our Prime Ministers most of all - Gordon Brown being the prime example of how difficult it now is to lead.

That might help to explain why politics often seems so dumb.

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