Bad Principles

2 March 2023

Bad Principles

And the exclusion of self-doubt.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Suddenly there is a hole in our politics and it is in the principles department. That is not to say that either Mr Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer are evil rogues or other than devoted public servants but rather that their attraction as politicians is in their propensity to each rely on his own judgement rather than blindly following any particular political dogma.

Take Sir Keir. There is no doubt that he has a good dollop of the personal qualities a place at the top of politics requires. He has administrative ability: that much is evident from the fact that he was a good Director of Public Prosecutions, something which even crusty Tory barristers will acknowledge. He has steel: his ruthless treatment of those in his party accused of anti-semitism is a tribute to that. He thinks before he speaks: his reticence has been the despair of the press. He does not seem to be too anxious to be loved: many populist opportunities are available to him but they generally go away untaken. These are solid qualities, the qualities of the younger Pitt, of Gladstone, of John Major, but one quality stands out above the others; his ambiguity. Does he see a role for the private sector in NHS health provision? Yes, when the circumstance demand it. Does he want to abolish private education? No, he sees a role for it but he will tackle certain tax breaks. Always the qualified answer: never the grandiose principle. No wonder that he is the despair of columnists who complain that they do not know where he stands.

Now look across the divide.  Sunak does not have public service to compare with being DPP but he has proven expertise in finance, no small advantage when the markets need to be kept onside. Beyond that there are similarities. He too seems to focus on issues rather than stunts. He too seems to think before he speaks. As to steel, well, we will know more about that when we have seen how his proposals for Northern Ireland fare, but the fact that he had the nerve to work them up without consultation with the DUP or the headbangers among the Tory right is promising. A practical man or a doctrinaire one? Hard to say but as a Leave supporter who seems to have struck up a good relationship with the EU he smells of pragmatism.

Not being tied down by dogma. Leaving space for the exercise of judgement. This is the philosophy of the main party leaderships at the moment.

But if the centre of politics seems unusually sane there is no lack of lunies on the fringes. For the Tories, the last general election was destabilising, not because they won it (which they were understandably pleased about) but because their majority was too large. Big majorities relax the pressure for party discipline and also mean that a higher proportion of low-grade candidates get elected. Before long they begin to act up and since those to whom they wish to show off cannot understand anything that is more than one sentence long, they begin to talk to them in slogans. Before long they are thinking in slogans too or, as they would put it, adhering to their principles. That sort of thinking begins to affect others. Look at the economic disaster foisted on us by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. As people of principle they believed in low taxation so their first act had to be to cut taxes. No matter that modern governments have to retain the confidence of the markets. No matter that you need a very convincing case if you are going to overthrow economic orthodoxy. No, people of principle go forward resolutely with closed minds, until they hit a brick wall that is, and then they whine on endlessly about how the principles were right but the world in which they were being applied was wrong – as if their very task was not to apply policies which succeed in the world as it is.

Then listen to those on the left denouncing the use by the NHS of the private sector. Why? Well, out of principle of course! And suppose it is the obvious response to a particular need? Well, never mind about that, people have to die but the principles are pleasingly eternal.

There is of course nothing new about politics being dominated by principles. If you read Macaulay’s history of England under the Stuarts with its changes in regime, the authoritarian Charles I, the regicide Cromwell, the treacherous but easy-going Charles II, the murderous Catholic James II, the protestant William of Orange, national politics swung on religious issues. Did a particular candidate for office believe that bread was or wasn’t turned into flesh at Communion? Did he approve of Bishops? Questions like these were often more important than whether he was the right man to lead a fleet against the French. What a simple way to make decisions and how disastrous many of them were in consequence. So how does the mindless pursuit of political principles by our politicians compare to the pursuit of religious principles in the 17th century? I suppose that it is something that modern principles do at least relate to politics, but the danger that they result in fixed rules replacing the exercise of judgment remains the same. From the public’s point of view it is like entrusting the future of the nation to a computer. If a particular policy ticks the principles box, then computer says “yes”. If the policy does not, then computer says “no”. Human judgement and common sense are excluded.

That doesn’t mean that politicians should have no philosophy at all. A government needs direction and it would be a surprise if an incoming Labour administration did not try to re-balance opportunities and wealth away from the privileged classes. Both Starmer and Sunak will have come to politics intending to improve the lot of their fellow Britons and with clear (albeit different) ideas as to how this might be done. Indeed we would think the less of them if they had not. How then do we distinguish between the narrow thoughtless principles of the political extremist and the healthy principles of the ambitious reformer? Is it like cholesterol? You know that there are good and bad sorts but you have to be a specialist to know which is which. How is the poor voter to discriminate?

Perhaps in the end it comes down to doubt. Doubt is an important part of the human condition and if principles are strong enough to override all doubt they diminish humanity and judgement. Principles which produce a framework in which self-doubt can still operate permit the exercise of judgement. They allow people to exercise the highest functions of humanity.  So where does that leave those politicians who will rant on thoughtlessly about the new proposals on Northern Ireland as they will rant on about anything else? Who will talk about red lines as if politics was a form of modern art?

The best advice to them must be the plea by Cromwell in his letter of 3 August 1650 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Cover page image of Oliver Cromwell: Steve Punter / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

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