Saturday, 19 April 2008

Leaders and choices

The other day I met up with a friend who works in public affairs and so deals with politicians quite a bit. He said something that rang very true with me which was that a lot of people in the political world lacked the ability (or desire?) to see another point of view, and that perhaps this was part of what made them successful. I think that might be bang on the money. A failure to appreciate another point of view allows single-mindedness and conviction (arguably it's also a sign of being a psychopath, but we'll let that one go). It enables clear decision-making.

In contrast, accepting other perspectives can lead to the realisation that a) there are other ways of addressing an issue b) your existing viewpoint is simply ...err... wrong. Unfortunately once you allow other perspectives it also, in my opinion, makes decision-making harder. And in this context making decisions makes many of us anxious - what someone called the 'dizziness of freedom'. You realise that often there isn't an obviously right/good option.

Our desire for an obvious correct option can been seen in all sorts of politics. On the Left we love idea of past betrayals, or sell-out leaderships. It would have worked out fine if the leadership hadn't turned to the Right/called off the strike. We can 'know' the right answer with the benefit of hindsight, and with no chance that our own solution will be put to the test. For right-wingers their desire for an obvious answer is surely most clearly demonstrated by the way so many of them reinvent the relatively recent past as a much better time. For anyone it's a very seductive way of thinking.

This reminds me that whilst I unfortunately still have some kind of pavlovian emotional response to red-blooded socialist rhetoric and imagery, intellectually and on a practical level I am Mr Moderate. I can't accept that defining yourself as a socialist/social democrat/lefty automatically also defines your policy outlook. My politics are basically a set of internal values and perspectives, not a programme. I don't think there is really an alternative to addressing each issue in turn and deciding an appropriate response given the balance of forces.

Unfortunately that means I am really bad at making decisions. Ho hum.


Charlie Marks said...

I do so love your philosophical posts...

Here's a question - what exactly is "the left"? I know what you are saying - but I don't know who you are referring to...

Might it be that your "pavlovian emotional response to red-blooded socialist rhetoric and imagery" does not imply a specific policy approach *because* it is just an emotional response and no more?

Here's an example of what I am talking about: if asked to my religion, I might say that I am a Catholic, though I am actually an agnostic... My answer is "Catholic" because that is the background and a shorter answe than "raised Catholic, currently agnostic"

So for your politics, you might say socialist but what you mean is "raised socialist but currently left-liberal"

Tom P said...

Hi Charlie

To leap to youtr last para first, I know exactly what you're saying, which is why I'm never quite sure whether to define myself as a socialist or a social democrat. Ultimately I prefer the former. That's probably a mixture of the fact that I simply like tha label, but also I find social democrat just a bit too vague.

But on the policy side of things, my position is defined more by experience. Much as I want to believe that we could solve the UK's problems if we just tilted further to the Left - tax the rich and business more to fund better public service etc - when I think about these things seriously I reach different conclusions. And therefore I feel the 'emotional' response is to look for the easy and/or most Left-sounding answers.

You can kind of see this being played out on the far Left at the moment. There is nothing new as far as I can see in the programmes of Respect, the Left List, Socialist Party etc. They simply seem to be reinventing the Labour left outside the Labour Party. There's no new ideas there. It's even more bizarre when you consider that many of the people within those organisations only use Old Labour politics as cover, because they don't think that they can stand on their own Marxist programme, which itself has not evolved.

Another thought on this is that it's maybe a bit strange to think of a political label as implying a specific programme. That means that 'socialist' (or whatever) actually translates as 'I know what the answer is-ist'.

PS Also interesting isn't it how religious labels have much more durability than political labels, and are ascribed to you at birth in a way that politics aren't.