Saturday, May 20, 2006

Must keep control

“In any month in the USA, more people are killed than on 9/11 … In any year in Israel, more than 10 times more deaths will occur from road traffic accidents than in the worst year of suicide bombings during this recent intifada—a terrible statistic. With this sort of record, it might be argued that a sign of development in a country is its number of road traffic accidents.”

Baroness Tonge, Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2006, Col. 92.

Some advice I had when learning to drive, a frightening number of years ago: everyone else is a homicidal maniac who wants you to crash into them.

That’s not just other drivers. When passing parked cars, look out for the dimwit opening his door into you. Expect horses and bicycles to weave out into the road, even when they know you’re overtaking. And pedestrians will leap out from any cover at all, just for the look on your face.

It’s this paranoia that makes driving hard work, but also keeps you safe. It’s got nothing to do with how coolly you drive at 120 mph. It’s about how elegantly you cope when things all go wrong.

It’s not how brilliant a driver you are, but how horrifying everyone else is.

This is actually the real skill in anything. A chef is not just someone who can follow a recipe, it’s someone who can manage a kitchen and deal with stuff going whoops. No, that doesn’t mean just swearing at skivvies.

The trick, even when the cooker’s blown up, the food’s been trodden into the floor and you’ve forgotten to stock up on cornflower, is for the dining person not even to be aware that anything’s other than peachy.

The skilful surgeon can sort out sudden gushing. The manager can deal with deadlines being brought forward. The passengers of a skilful driver won’t even notice the changing of gears.

It’s about care and planning and experience. It’s about being in control whatever’s hurled your way.

Tradespersons will often give you some sense of authority by offering options to choose from. “I can use sticky tape for free,” a plumber might tell you, “but it’ll leak poo again soon enough. I can unblock the pipe for about fifty quid, but it’s still gonna stink in the summer. Or, for the cost of a van and deposit, you could move house to somewhere not built above the intercept sewer.”

This specialist knowledge comes from actually doing the job. A doctor will know more about your sore throat than you could look up in five minutes’ googling. A chef will know the best way to cut asparagus (cutting with the back end of the knife, keeping the point always on the chopping board and acting like a pivot).

I know more about grammar from four years of freelancing than from four years of reading English at universities. Writing is a similar skill. It’s not just that you can plonk words down on a page (no, really). You have to be selfless enough to heed editorial criticism and self-confident enough to know when it’s wrong. You have to be in control of your stuff.

You don’t go to a plumber or dentist because they’ll tell you what you want to hear, nor because they look good in photos. You want someone with the skill, integrity, experience and ability who can sort the shit out.

Politics, though, is doing its own thing. Politics, though, is Not The Same. You should vote not for the prettiest or funniest option, but for the one you trust to best make the difficult decisions.

Yet an unfortunate side effect of the democratic process is that it can make voting a popularity contest. Which means even the biggest politicians aren’t actually in control.

Professional politicians are keen not to say anything unpopular. So they’re keen on environmental issues so long as they keep their posh cars. Anyway, when we don’t keep buying new cars, lots of people lose their jobs.

They’re keen on renewable energies, but nuclear power stations are less costly to invest in. They like tough new laws on terror, but nuclear power stations are also an obvious target.

These are difficult, complex issues which can’t be summed up in a soundbite. Any decision has far-reaching consequences for all kinds of different groups.

One thing politicians like to do is show “strength”. Someone’s bothering our islands of sheep? We’ll have won a war with them in a fortnight. We’ve lost thousands of people we should have deported? Well now we’ll deport every one of them, even if that means sending them to their deaths.

A chicken’s got the sniffles in Norfolk? Exterminate all poultry everywhere!

It’s like smacking a leaky pipe or a sore tooth with a mallet, just to be seen to be doing something.

Strength is not the same as control, no matter what dictators tell you. Being strong on crime or refugees isn’t a solution, it’s a reaction. It’s attacking the symptoms not the cause. The system of releasing foreign prisoners needs fixing, not just to be ignored.

When you’re in the driving seat you want to put your foot down. It’s a thrill to wield that power, and it’s what they do in movies.

But giving into that temptation is not good driving. It’s not merely reckless, it kills.


Alex Wilcock said...

Side point while I’m working on an exhaustively large post about your main argument…

They’re keen on renewable energies, but nuclear power stations are less costly to invest in. They like tough new laws on terror, but nuclear power stations are also an obvious target.

I agree with you on terror laws and building great big new nuclear targets – I recently blogged about five great big reasons against nuclear, and that was one of them – but I also included the cost, which is actually huge. The only reason we have a ‘private’ nuclear industry is that the government pays for most of it, not least the astronomical clean-up costs (it’s a bit like pass the parcel, as every government hopes to pass off the decommissioning costs to a successor a couple of decades down the line, as it’ll probably be something like £150 billion).

So if the cost’s appalling, why is Mr Blair suddenly so hot on nukes? Well, as I’m going to disagree with much of your analysis later, I have to admit the two reasons I can think of both support you (unless it’s the petty one of trying to split the Tories). It’s possible they’re just great big virility symbols (ironically), and that Mr Blair just wants a show of ‘strength’. More likely, I suspect, is the fear of unpopularity with nimbies. No-one likes nuclear power much, but as long as the electricity keeps flowing, if you’re not next door to a reactor most people won’t mind enough to change their vote. Alternative energy is far cleaner, less prey to terrorists and even cheaper, but it’s much less compact. I suspect Mr Blair calculates you only need to upset a few people by building a dozen or so nuke plants rather than upset large numbers of nimbys by building shedloads of wind turbines. I’d go for the wind turbines, myself, but I suspect their unpopularity with neighbours would be much broader, if much less deep.

Alex Wilcock said...

I meant to reply to this when it was rather more current – I notice today it’s dropped off the bottom of the page, whoops – but better late than never ought to be my motto. So, as we couldn’t make it for a curry to talk about it before you wrote it…

All the detail about driving made me smile. I don’t drive; I decided when I was quite young that I’d never learn unless I lived in an area where I desperately needed a car. I’ve always lived in relatively urban or suburban places, so it hasn’t arisen – though I cheat, of course, and take advantage of Richard’s tank. Which means I watch his face while driving, and I’m sure he thinks as you do. I also smiled at your opening with a quote from Jenny Tonge, who I don’t always agree with but am very fond of. I won’t veer into gossipy old anecdotes about her now, though she’s been particularly famous for saying things she meant that were ‘unpopular’.

I suppose there are three* main differences between politics and driving: you usually want to do it for more altruistic reasons than any other ‘skill’; no-one can really tell you how to do it; and, yes, if you ‘pass the test’, you could end up ‘driving’ something more dangerous than a tanker on a slippery motorway.

As far as altruism goes, whatever I may think of people in parties other than my own, almost everyone I’ve ever met in politics got into it because they wanted to do something for other people (you have to be pretty crazy to start off because of what you can get out of it; whatever the fuss about John Prescott’s country house these days, he put in several decades of hard slog before he got to the stage of behaving like a grasping old Tory). Making a gross generalisation, people either complain about the world the way it is, and want to change it, or complain about the way it’s going, and want to keep it as it is. You might call the latter motive the fear that “everyone else is a homicidal maniac who wants… to crash.”

I got involved in politics from the ‘change the world’ perspective. I went through a point in my mid-teens when I was complaining about everything, and decided to get off my arse and do something about it instead. You might say that, after years of heavy political activity, now I’m mainly just blogging I’ve retreated to the position of ‘arse’.

Either way, it’s not about being in control; that may come later. All sorts of things get in the way of what you want to do, and becoming corrupted as you go along or turning into a minor Bond villain is very rare. Much easier things that deflect you from what you originally meant to do are the natural tendency to fit in with your chosen party, the minutiae and the little compromises that get your ideas heard by going along with other people’s too, and what opportunities you get to do things – you can often end up in a side alley simply because something needs doing and no-one else will.

Professional politicians are keen not to say anything unpopular.

Up to a point. There’s a trade-off on how unpopular something is versus how important you think it is and how much you want to spend your effort trying to persuade people. And then there’s the consideration, not how ‘unpopular’ something actually is, but how misrepresented it could be. I don’t have much time for the Labour Party, but I can see how they became so tightly controlled; after years of being picked on and lied about, they’re still terrified in their bunker. To pick an example from my own party, I sighed when Ming said last week we were doing a u-turn on saying convicts shouldn’t be deprived of the vote. I still think you’re on a slippery slope if you say ‘bad people’ can’t be represented; but I know how many Lib Dems have got tired of Labour leaflets with big pictures of Ian Brady saying our sole priority for Britain is to give the Moors Murderer the vote. Some ‘unpopular’ things can mark you out as distinctive, too, and be more a sign of ‘strength’ than being ‘strong’ – because you’re telling people you actually mean it, and you’re not giving in to papers or polls. I remember being personally delighted when two of the three things that the Daily Telegraph singled out for its biggest ire in the 1997 Lib Dem Manifesto, for example, were largely put there by me (gay bits and green bits, I think, if you’re wondering).

One thing politicians like to do is show “strength”.

Yes, “being strong on crime or refugees isn’t a solution, it’s a reaction”, but is a reaction because “politicians” “like” it? Nah. I think it’s very rare that any politician thinks they’re in a movie. I know it’s easy to believe that some of the more bluff and bullying government ministers think they’re being all macho, but I still reckon it’s more put on because they’re afraid, and because, as you say:

These are difficult, complex issues which can’t be summed up in a soundbite.

I think politics is much less about ‘thrill’ and much more about ‘fear’. If you come up with a complex answer, it’s likely to be reduced to a much less complex headline, which will beat you about the head. Which is why, much as I dislike many people in opposing parties, I can usually have more sympathy for where they’re coming from than for a lot of journalists, for whom ‘thrill’ and greed seem to be much bigger motivators than truth or passion. But I’m going on too much anyway and won’t vent my spleen on people whose only contribution to public life is destructive just now.

I know I’ve gone on so long I should probably have stuck all this on my own blog (well, you did ask. Be careful what you wish for), but to finish with a positive suggestion, my way of illustrating ‘the one you trust to best make the difficult decisions’ is to talk about political philosophy. It’s partly that saying ‘this is our general direction’ helps make sense of all the little things, and it’s partly that events always come along and interfere with your plans, so relying on nothing but individual policies can suddenly leave you stranded. As my old friend and mentor Conrad Russell used to say, because parties spend so much time playing it by ear, people are entitled to know something of the ear by which they play. Even my own party downplays its philosophical arguments more than I’d like (look at the tiny print our ‘what the Lib Dems stand for’ section was in in last year’s Manifesto), but I still reckon the best way to break out of the cycle of people not believing what you say is to start by saying what you believe.

*All right, there are oodles more than three. But among the few useful things people can teach you about politics is that a good speech makes points in threes, with the third point either noticeably longer or noticeably shorter for emphasis. Even Davros does it.

Alex Wilcock said...


All that and I still forgot the thing I'd made a note to say today.

Happy blogging birthday!