Smart Thinking

Sunday Soapbox: A politician who admits they haven’t the foggiest is a politician worth listening to

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The power of ‘I don’t know’, the ugliness of communism and why we should be thinking about how we celebrate boys and girls

Sunday soapbox brexit

We need to allow our leaders to tell us they don’t know – especially on Brexit

Last week I had the privilege of sitting in on a briefing by one of the most senior people involved in Brexit. It was Chatham House Rules, so my lips are sealed as to who, but it doesn’t strictly matter anyway. In the course of an hour, they gave the most balanced view of our Brexit predicament as I’ve heard. Certainly from someone at the Brexitty coalface. 

I’m going to paraphrase here, but they said things like, ‘the EU referendum was pretty shabby’ (no kidding); ‘Brexit is being developed in real time’; ‘Brexit is clogging up government at the expense of everything else’; and ‘It’s taken us all so long to present our vision for Brexit because none of us thought it would happen and so we didn’t have any policies ready to go on June 24, 2016.’ And then this: ‘We won’t know what Brexit should look like until 2021. But it’s happening in 2019.’ 

Sentient adults know all of this, of course. But such acknowledgements don’t tend to fall from the lips of our elected officials. Now, I know, people – us, the electorate – don’t like uncertainty in our leaders. We like certainty. Or at least, we used to. Certainty was like a good pillow: supportive, comforting and there for you when everything else is going to hell in a handcart. Certainty in a leader we believe in makes us feel settled and reassured that even if we don’t get it, someone else does. 

But that’s no longer the case, because all too often certainty is offered without being backed up by fact or circumstance. The texture of modern media means our politicians don’t get two moments in the spotlight every day (one in the morning papers and the other on the 10 o’clock news); they gets millions. Which means that if your certainty is just to keep up appearances, you’ll get found out – and shredded – before you’ve finished your sentence.

False certainty is a problem. It’s damaging our leaders and, more seriously, the notion of leadership. It makes us angry, because it feels like we’re being lied to. It makes us worried, because we can’t back anyone else to solve the problem for us. And it makes us distrust anyone who becomes the face of what we see as a false promise. 

On Brexit, it would be refreshing to hear our leadership say they don’t know, can’t be sure or just that they’re bricking it. We all know that’s how they feel. Right now, that would (and did last week) gain my trust. Because if you’ve thought for five minutes about how complex getting out of the EU actually is (‘like unscrambling a 28-egg omelette and asking for your egg back,’ was the analogy), and just how disinterested the other side is in making sure we get the best Brexit possible, you’d accept that the people responsible for it might need to go away for a while and think about it a bit without being hounded every day for answers.

Not that they’ll get it. We want to know now whether we’re going get back all the herring in the North Sea, or whether we’re going to get future-proofed trade deals with the rest of the world that will make our grandchildren stinking rich. For the last 18 months we’ve been promised a Brexit that works for everyone, which is the most absurd, crystal example of false certainty I can remember. But until we give our leaders the space to say ‘I don’t know’, it’s all we’re going to get.

sunday soapbox communismThe communists are (not) coming

I was talking to a friend of mine about communism this week. Igor is Russian and moved to the UK in 1998 to study, and never went home. He’s cheerful about much of communism, or, as he admits it was, his childhood. You could leave your bike unchained at the doorway to a block of flats and not think for a moment it wouldn’t be there when you got back, he assures me. And everyone was equal and had the same clothes. It was easier than capitalism. I’m sure there’s some truth in that, but communism’s great flaw remains that it has no regard for excellence or beauty. With no market forces driving improvement, only political paranoia and an overbearing sense of international superiority, you get the disastrous Tupolev Tu-144 (Russia’s doomed answer to Concorde), Ladas, cabbage soup, and cities of soulless, shoddily assembled concrete tower blocks. Communism sounds nice on paper, but in reality, it’s crap. Alarming then that our local branch has leant its backing to the Official Opposition, which last week Survation polled at 44 per cent. 

Let’s build women up, not tear men down

I was almost moved to tears by a five-minute clip released by The Times on International Women’s Day of Caitlin Moran reading from her book Moranifesto. Her mission to give young women confidence is a wonderful thing and I had visions of sharing the clip with my daughter, now six, in years to come when the social-media-fuelled tsunami of teenage angst hits her. I was also struck by the need for champions of Moran’s calibre and compulsion for boys, too. Being a boy, or a man, is not getting any easier. So much of public portrayal of modern masculinity is negative, the narrative one of guilt for the years of oppressive paternal power structures and abuse. I wonder if we need a new narrative. Not one of ‘equality’, which is fast being tainted by perceptions of male aggression and female victimisation, but instead one of mutuality, collaboration and a recognition of our different but complementary qualities. Men and women build societies together – whatever our roles, we both bring an invaluable contribution to the table. Let’s celebrate that.