Thursday, 14 April 2011

Getting rid of tiresome prejudices

We should all question our most deeply-held beliefs from time to time. It’s good mental gymnastics, the intellectual equivalent of a testing session at the gym.

Today I’m going to question not one but two of mine.

The first is the sense I have when I look at someone like Bill Gates or Alan Sugar. My instinct is to believe that it isn't by luck alone that they've achieved such success, or if luck’s involved, it's of their own making and they know how to take advantage of it when it turns up. Their accomplishments reflect exceptional talents.

So, for instance, when Mark Thatcher accompanied his Mummy, then British Prime Minister, to Saudi as part of the delegation working on the record-breaking Al Yamamah arms deal in 1985 , and came back a multi-millionaire (some reports suggest he made £12 million), what was I to think but that he was obviously a gifted businessman, endowed with acute judgement and supreme skills in negotiation?

It’s true that regrettable things have since been said about that deal, with unpleasant allegations of corruption and nasty slurs on the British government for failing to prosecute them. Still, why should that shake my faith in successful businessmen?

The second view that needs challenging suggests that politicians are necessarily dishonest. You know, the mindset that means if someone answers the question ‘what do you do for a living?’ with the words ‘I’m a politician’, you’re inclined to follow up with ‘so are you out on parole?’ This is the kind of thinking that made American comedian Kinky Friedman demand that politicians should be limited to two terms, one in office and one in prison.

Sometimes politicians are completely sincere. I listen carefully to the top people in our current government, for instance. They’re always telling us that the massive cuts they're making in public services are absolutely vital to bring the deficit under control and reduce national indebtedness. The pain they are going to cause, and it will be acute, is necessary. They say it so often, and to so many people in so many contexts, that I'm sure they really mean it. In other words, they’re not lying – they’re telling us what they are genuinely convinced is the truth.

No dishonesty there, then.

So it’s interesting that Fraser Nelson, of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine, finds that the actual reduction in public expenditure being produced by the cuts is 'embarrassingly small'. They add up to 3.7% over four years, or little over 0.9% on average in each year.  In other words, they’re barely going to dent the deficit, and debt will continue to grow at an impressive pace.

Why’s this happening? Well, the cuts are leading to huge increases in joblessness, and therefore massive growth in expenditure on social security. As a result spending reductions in healthcare, education, even defence (and we’re now in our third war) are being wiped out by the increased outlays to which they’ve led.

Yet our ministers are sincerely convinced that they're taking significant action on the state of the public finances. Honestly. So it's hard to believe that they're knaves, but terribly easy to accept the alternative conclusion, that they must be fools. There are times when I wonder whether they have the wit to be duplicitous, effectively at least.

Now follow the reasoning carefully, because this single discovery challenges both the prejudices I’m combating: these people are our leaders as well as being politicians. And yet it’s obvious that they’re neither pastmasters in deception nor endowed with the intellectual acumen of, say, a Mark Thatcher He, by the way, is now living in Spain, following his involvement in a failed coup Equatorial Guinea. He's been barred from countries that are more discriminatory, or perhaps more discriminating, including the United States and that haven of probity, Monaco. 

As to manner born, Mark Thatcher stepping into a police car
Conclusion: you don't absolutely need talent to get to the top and you don't have to be dishonest to be a successful politician. Our present government provides a salutary lesson to us all: you can pull off both tricks without either remarkable crookedness or unusual intelligence.


Malc Dow said...

"Kinky Friedman demanded that politicians should be limited to two terms, one in office and one in prison." Perhaps the other way round might be a better idea.

David Beeson said...

At least that way we'd know for sure that we were electing criminals