Roll out the rotten barrel


In these hard times a free meal is always welcome so I hope it won’t be considered churlish of me to describe a recent dinner – one of the regular gatherings of a somewhat secretive members’ club - at which I was kindly hosted by some corporate friends of the RSA. As well as food, wine and good company, I overcame my aversion to black tie dress code because David Miliband was the keynote speaker.

David’s speech focused on foreign affairs and was a powerful combination of insight, experience and conviction. Whilst avoiding political knockabout, the former Foreign Secretary didn’t hide his concerns that the UK seems virtually alone in thinking that it is possible to operate effectively on the international stage without cultivating strong relationships with our neighbours.

With so much content in the speech I was looking forward to the question and answer session. A couple of hands shot up straight away. The first question was along these lines: ‘given that you are so impressive and your brother less so, do you think the Labour Party will simply accept defeat in the next election or be brave enough to commit regicide?’. I was about to remark to the person next to me how completely inappropriate this was when the second questioner chirped up with; ‘how do you respond to the news that voters apparently think you’re better looking than your brother, and when are you going to come back and seize the leadership of your Party?’.

With most people in the room squirming, it was not a time to hesitate. Even though I was only a guest, up shot my hand for the third question. Picking up one small reference in the speech I asked him about my favourite subject; how can politicians help close the social aspiration gap by persuading people to think and act in ways which help to build a better future out of our current difficulties.

If I had been David I don’t know how I would have handled the situation. He simply said ‘That’s why it’s always good to take questions in threes’ and ignored the first two (just one reason he’s a politician and I’m not). His response to me went straight to the biggest flaw with my argument: it sounds both judgemental and unrealistic.

As David said, most people have no choice but to rise to the challenge created by economic stagnation and public sector austerity. They are working as hard as they can to keep their head above water and, through individual caring and contributing to their community, doing their best to make up for the withdrawal of state support. Just now they probably don’t need pious lectures from politicians.

Of course, this is right. It must be some flaw in my character (one of many) which tends me towards making the case in judgemental terms. The reasons for a lack of engagement, resourcefulness and social responsibility in the general population lie much less in the individual failings of people than the nature of politics and political discourse, the design of policy and the organisation and culture of public services.

Our tendency to blame people when things go wrong rather than deeper structure and culture is an understandable but impeding cognitive frailty. Thus we express our ire towards bankers not the financial system, expense-fiddling MPs not our flawed democratic system, even journalists rather the puerile obsessions of celebrity culture. Sometimes the initial blame fest gives way to a more reflective approach, such as we may see emerge from the Leveson inquiry, but other times we pluck out the rotten apples but ignore the rotten barrel.

So I won’t blame the two rather over-excited gentlemen for the embarrassing questions the other night. Instead I surmise it may be something about wearing slightly silly clothes and breathing an atmosphere of intense mutual appreciation that beings out the worst in people.

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