Bringing tomorrow into today


Rarely, I fear, do I say anything worth repeating. Once, when I was asked ‘what is it like to be an only child?’, I answered ‘I don’t know, I haven’t got any brothers or sisters’, which I thought was cute. I have a recollection that some time ago, maybe even in this blog, I said something like this: ’political leadership is the courage and the ability to bring tomorrow into today’. I’m sure I'll find it was said more elegantly by someone much more distinguished but until then I’ll claim it.

Listening to the economist Robert Shiller speaking at the RSA this morning (he is here again on Thursday at a public event) I was reminded of this idea. Shiller, you will recall, is famous for systematically linking the credit crunch and subsequent recession to what John Maynard Keynes called ‘animal spirits’. Simply put, the idea is that when things are going well we get carried away thinking that the economy will always grow and that we can do away with any constraints on our economic behaviour. Then, in downturns, the opposite occurs, with caution and risk aversion worsening the crisis and hindering recovery.

Professor Shiller has a number of policy solutions to end the current crisis and head off the next. But a recurrent theme coming from the impressive group of people attending this morning’s seminar was that the same psychological frailties he described mean that once the crisis had slipped from our memories, we are likely to dismantle all the measures put in place in its wake (Shiller, by the way, recognises this but thinks overall, crisis by crisis, we do learn and things get better).

This is the link with my bon mot. To avoid future epidemics of irrational exuberance and, more fundamentally still, to get us to support steps that prepare for major predictable risks like population ageing and climate change, we need leaders who can ‘bring tomorrow into today’.

At the heart of the deep failings of our political system is the problem of how to exercise leadership in the modern world. Democratic leadership involves convincing people that their first instincts are not always right (if they were, leadership would presumably be unnecessary) and persuading them to consider both the general good and the requirements of the long term.

Political strategy over the last era has moved between two inadequate way of thinking; either, broadly, that people (by which we mean ‘hard working families’ or some other phrase indicating the exclusion of the mad, bad or different) are right and we should give them what they want, or that people can’t be trusted so we should try to do the right thing surreptitiously while pretending to pander to public prejudice. The first was how it looked under Blair, the second is how it feels under Brown.

The MPs’ allowances system sprang up because even political leaders we associate with an older style (Thatcher and Foot) were unwilling to confront public instincts. They thought it impossible to explain that good governance requires us to pay MPs more so as to recruit and retain talented people in politics and to avoid even honest MPs looking for other, possibly dodgy, ways of supplementing their income. Instead of explaining the long term consequences of paying too little, the allowances system was created to paper over the ever widening cracks between the views of the woman on the Clapham omnibus and her MP.

Over the intervening twenty five years three things have happened. MPs have become harder working - thirty years ago many more MPs were essentially part time, typically combining politics with a career in law or business. For example, there has been an exponential increase in constituency correspondence and woe betide the MP who doesn't answer it all. Second, Party leaders have continued to insist that MPs must constrain their wages in order to avoid a media fuelled public backlash. Third, the allowances and expenses system has grown to deal with MPs’ sense that they are underpaid and their need to fund the burgeoning workload of their constituency offices (much of which is demanded by national Parties themselves cash-strapped by the lack of state funding and the justifiable nervousness of donors)

Psychology teaches us to notice that the things of which accuse others are often those which we feel most about ourselves. When politicians complain that people don’t trust them the reality is that they don’t trust the people. And when politicians say the need is to empower the public they really wish the public would empower them to be brave and make wise decisions.

These are the kinds of question we should now be discussing. They link the political crisis with the economic crisis and the need for a post deferential politics of social responsibility and the long term. Somehow I don’t think capping MPs second home mortgage payments quite gets to the point.

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