Edition number 76; dateline 26 September 2014
Interesting times: the age of selective certainty
The election campaign has at last begun in earnest. With Scotland’s elopement thwarted, Westminster seems to have breathed a sigh of relief and returned to business as usual. And what an odd business it is. For all the righteous invocation of the democratic principle and parliamentary scrutiny, the business of Westminster increasingly seems to be the selling of certainty.
We may be living in interesting times, as the old Chinese curse has it, but there appears to be no room for doubt in the process of political persuasion. The actions of our elected representatives suggest that they are convinced that no voter could countenance a hint of doubt or equivocation among those standing for office. Any suggestion of vacillation or equivocation, the usual indicators that betray an enquiring mind at work, are not to be borne. Only those candidates able to demonstrate the firmest adherence to the most simple of solutions (or so the candidates seem to think) can possibly win our cross in their box.
This assumption of political certainty is strange given that most of us spend so much of our lives racked with doubt, agonising over the momentous and inconsequential decisions (and how to tell the difference?) that we think may affect our lives and the lives of those around us. Even the swiftest decision-makers among us will acknowledge that there are various arguments to be weighed, different perspectives and advantages to be judged, before a course of action is selected. And they are likely to have worried about whether to tell you.
The prevalence of political certainty is particularly strange given the track record of the certainties that politicians offer. This is not to make a political point but rather a point about politics: we may say with some confidence that the record is not good. Take, for example, some highlights of recent headlines. The policy of austerity has quickly become a parliamentary shibboleth carefully enunciated by politicians on both sides of the house. All are keen to demonstrate how comfortable they are with the hard-bitten necessities of economic consensus even though the arguments for austerity’s success are overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary: none of the government’s original indicators have been met, international economic agencies and commentators have noted that it has been counter-productive in terms of its original stated aims, and the chancellor is constantly arguing with the government’s own statistical agencies about what is happening and why.
Another political certainty is the efficiency of the private sector. Even after the shame-faced returned of the passport agency to the control of the Home Office, I would be willing to stake the Leisure Review’s lunch money that no politician between now and 7 May 2015 will publicly express their belief in the value of public service as exemplified by the millions who work in the public sector. No matter how great or how numerous the examples of public sector innovation, efficiency and excellence, no matter how few privatised public services can be shown to have delivered the promised benefits to Treasury and citizen (there must be one but it does not spring to mind), no politician can break from the received wisdom of private sector efficacy.
And of course there is overwhelming certainty in parliament regarding the merit of dropping bombs on the Middle East, even though decades of evidence has now amassed to show that this policy has brought neither safety nor security to the nations and people being bombed or the nations and people doing the bombing. Whatever the certainties of austerity dictate for public services, it seems we can still find the money for ordnance and invasion without question.
It is perplexing. Anyone who has been told that investment in leisure services needs to be backed up by evidence of its impact cannot help but be bewildered. Meanwhile (as we report in this month’s news page) we spend £800 million a year on treating diabetes, a cost that has risen by more than 56% in less than ten years for a disease that is largely a function of the obesity crisis.
The Scottish independence referendum demonstrated that people will get involved with the political process if they feel that their input is of value, if their views and their votes can make a difference. While politicians at Westminster are critical of the electorate’s apparent lack of engagement with the political process, voters across the UK wonder what options they have in the face of a pre-determined political landscape. Time and again surveys and polls show that the public overwhelmingly supports investment in high-quality public services but the only options available at election time are the certainties of a political elite, certainties that collapse under the most cursory scrutiny.
So save us from the selective certainties of the electoral circus. It is time for our politicians to take a risk on being open, honest and unsure. The evidence suggests they may be surprised by the returns.
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