Wednesday, 14 October 2015

John McDonnell: what matters is that the decision was right, not how you got there

The commentariat has been going wild in Britain this week. It’s been fascinated by the question of whether John McDonnell, newly appointed Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under newly elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, had made a right hash of things.

The background is that the actual (as opposed to Shadow) Chancellor, George Osborne, has proposed new legislation binding future governments – including his own – to running budget surpluses in “normal times.”

At best, this is a gimmick (I’ll come on to what it is at worst in a bit). It’s ill-thought out: it doesn’t, for instance, distinguish between investment and current expenditure. Investment may well generate a big return in the future (perhaps a new railway line, or a government-financed scientific breakthrough), so it makes no sense to treat it as merely a cost today and not count any of the future benefit against it.

More crucial still, it’s a law that can’t be enforced. Parliament makes all laws, and therefore unmakes any law it wishes; it can’t bind itself by law, because all it would take if it became disenchanted with a law in the future, would be a quick act repealing it. By extension, since under what passes for a constitution in Britain, a government has to have a parliamentary majority it’s hard to see how parliament can pass a law to bind the government: it can simply use its majority to repeal anything it finds irksome.

At worst, what the proposal really intends is to justify further massive cuts in public expenditure, by passing them off as prudent financial management. Many suspect that there’s an unspoken agenda on the part of the Conservative Party to shrink the State. That’s a legitimate aim, naturally, but it ought to be expressed openly, not slipped in disguised as something else. On the other hand, one can understand why the government would want to disguise such an aim: we’ve learned just recently that the NHS, for instance, is on the brink of bankruptcy, with a deficit approaching a billion pounds in a single quarter, making it a little difficult to argue for further cuts.

Finally, it may be just a trick to try to embarrass Labour, by challenging them either to support the government or to paint themselves as opposed to financial prudence.

Which takes us neatly to John McDonnell.

Just a couple of weeks ago, at the Labour Party Conference, he announced that he would be supporting the government initiative.

Now, however, he’s switched round 180 degrees and decided to oppose it.

Imagine the uproar! “U-turn!” cry opponents or the media. “A mess and a muddle!” “Labour in chaos!” At their least ungenerous, hostile commentators point out that McDonnell’s new in post and his wobbles and inconsistencies are all part of the learning pains anyone might expect to go through.

In any case, they make it clear that the whole episode reflects badly on Labour. But then, they would, wouldn’t they?

To me, the whole thing’s another gimmick, just like the government proposal itself. It’s an attempt to paint Labour as incompetent – whereas, to me and a great many others, what matters isn’t that McDonnell changed his mind, but that he ended up taking the right decision.

John McDonnell
Why care that he changed his mind, if he got it right in the end?

This puts me mind of a story about Abraham Lincoln, the man I regard as the best politician in history, bar none.

In 1861, during the American Civil War, a US Navy ship intercepted a British mail vessel, RMS Trent, put men on board and seized two Confederate envoys who were heading for Europe to stoke up support for the rebellious States. Britain was furious, the United States delighted; Britain threatened war, and the US responded with the diplomatic equivalent of “bring it on.” Britain at that time had the world’s most powerful navy; Lincoln knew that he was in no position to fight a second war alongside the great struggle in which he was already engaged. But he didn’t want to back down to Britain, with all the loss of pride that would entail, to say nothing of the opprobrium it would excite around the country.

His Secretary of State, William Seward, on the other hand pointed out that such a sacrifice would be a lot smaller than the cost of a war. He recommended handing over the envoys to Britain.

Lincoln told him he couldn’t do that, and would prepare a paper arguing against Seward’s position that very evening. However, the next morning he turned up at the Cabinet meeting without a paper, and agreed with Seward’s proposal. Surprised by his agreement, the latter caught up with Lincoln after the meeting, and asked why he hadn’t submitted the promised paper.

“I found,” Lincoln replied, “I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.”

Yes. If your second thoughts are better than your first, go with them.

Getting it right first time is great, and it’s a pity McDonnell didn’t. But getting it right at all is what matters. Nothing’s worse than sticking to a bad position come what may. That’s what Maggie Thatcher used to do, refusing to back down from any of her ideas, however misguided; that gave us the poll tax and the Section 28 homophobic legislation, and ultimately led to her downfall.

So well done, John McDonnell, for recognising that you had it wrong. And for having the courage to admit it and change your view. 

Because what matters is the quality of your final decision, not the route by which you got there – even if it was a little convoluted.

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