2016 minus 50: changing opinions

Posted: 12 November 2015 in 2016minus, politics
Tags: , ,

I’ve written before that I genuinely think that in the UK, we have the least competent politicians we’ve been unfortunate enough to have for generations. That’s leaving aside their incompetence as ministers or shadow ministers. I mean as politicians, as people whose job it is to change people’s opinions via persuading you that their policies are the right ones. Persuading you that the other lot’s policies are wrong is obviously part of it, but they don’t do that either. Instead they insult and bluster and scare and hyperbolise… and lie. They use phrases like “endangering national security” without explaining why, relying upon the phrase itself to work. The Conservatives attack Labour because they think that’s what works, and recent evidence says it does. Labour attack the Conservatives for the same reasons and again, no-one within the party leadership – especially now – seems to think there’s another option.   Scare stories are the tactic of choice for all, while accuracy, truth and genuine argument are starving away in the attic.  

Persuasion through argument hasn’t been a necessary skill for a UK politician for some time. The theatre of Prime Minister’s Questions is supposed to be the outlier, the theatrical part of politics. But it’s become the example to which politicians aspire in general. Insulting your political opponent is as least if not more important than making your own point. And this has taken over British politics to the extent that I’m pretty convinced that the forthcoming debate on the UK’s EU membership will simply beabout who can scare the public more. After all, that’s what the few general elections have been about, and it’s damaged political discourse in this country to an astonishing and lamentable degree.

It’s impossible for some on the left to utter the word “Tory…” without appending the word “…scum”, and for others, that ranks as a positive tribute compared to their words of choice. And heaven forbid anyone changes their mind on a subject: they’re immediately regarded as sell-outs or even traitors to the cause. 

There  are lots of causes for this, I think; some are ages old, some are relatively new. Politices, as my friend Mitch Benn has said, has become a competitive sport, just as singing became one when Mariah Carey made it her business to get twelve syllables out of the word ‘love’ and X-Factor-Got-Talent commercialised karaoke.   

Jeremy Paxman, in one of the best points he made in his wonderful book The Political Animal said that only in politics and religion is it seen as a positive virtue not to have changed your mind in twenty years. (He doesn’t think that’s a coincidence, by the way, and I’m coming around to his point of view.)

And, sadly, I’m no better than most. A long time ago I helped run a UK Politics message board on CompuServe. What has struck me forcefully in recent times is that it’s incredibly rare that I’ve actually changed my mind on a subject due solely to the quality of debate and the arguments expressed.

The only two that spring to mind are the Monarchy in the UK and the Death Penalty, both of which I used to be in favour of, and both of which I am, at the very least, now ambivalent about.

As far as the Monarchy goes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it should be abolished simply because it doesn’t make sense. Sure you need a Head of State, but I have become entirely unconvinced as to the merits and advantages of someone having that role purely as an accident of birth. As I’m getting older, I’m finding that I’m less convinced by things that fail the “it just doesn’t make sense” question. I’m not sure whether that indicates I’m getting more sensible, more skeptical or just older.

As for the death penalty, I used to be a fervent believer in it. I’m less so now. I’m still kind of, maybe, sort of in favour of it in theory… but absolutely, fervently, overwhelmingly against it in practice. There have simply been far too many miscarriages of justice for me to ever believe that a sentence of death should be carried out. The argument that ‘well, we know this one did the murders”, doesn’t work for me, since sooner or later, inevitably, exactly the same thing will be said about someone who later turned out to be not guilty.

But neither of those are simple things; both are important and complex enough to require thought; they’re not the only issues; in fact, one could and should argue that in the UK, an hereditary monarchy and an abolished death penalty  are the least of the things that should concern anyone. But they serve to illustrate that nothing is simple, and simple solutions are just that: simple solutions for simple people. 

Political discourse should be complicated; it should be nuanced. It shouldn’t be reduced to who can scare the public the most. But that’s what it’s become. You don’t like the idea of renewing Trident, then you’re a danger to national security! You do like it? You’re a warmonger! You don’t want welfare reform? You’ll bankrupt the country! You do want welfare reform? You want poor people to die!

I’ve got my political opinions; of course I have. I just wish when politicians – and politically interested people – tell me I’m wrong, they tried to persuade me with argument rather than insult, and with debate instead of disdain.


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