Complexity is not going away, especially in public policy and in healthcare – but can our leaders explain it to their audience, asks Andy Cowper
Why does our politics seem to have become so dull-witted, insular, parochial and straight-up random?
To answer this, we need to dismiss what Cowper’s First Law Of Politics refers to as the first refuge of a buffoon: the argument that ‘it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in… they’re all the same, all in it for themselves’.
Clearly, it’s nice to learn from this phrase that political discourse has adequate representation from the buffoon community. The only problem is that this argument doesn’t stand up to much contact with reality.
Does the government always get in?
Let’s start with British Parliamentary politics, shall we? OK! In my living memory, there were significant differences between the 1979 Callaghan-led government and the Thatcher-led opposition. In 1983, there were significant differences between the Thatcher government and the Foot opposition. In 1987, the same was true between the Thatcher government and the Kinnock opposition.
Can you tell where this is going? Oh good: the same was true in 1992 between Mr Major and Mr Kinnock; in 1997 between Mr Major and Mr Blair; in 2001 between Mr Blair and Mr Hague; in 2005, between Mr Blair and Mr Howard; in 2010 between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron; in 2015 between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband and in 2017 between Mrs May’s special advisors and the rest of humanity… sorry! Between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn.
It is quite simply ludicrous for anyone who has the faintest whiff of a clue to assert of the manifestos and public policy positions, “they’re all the same.”
So why do so many people seem so inclined to imitate The White Queen from Through The Looking Glass, and believe six impossible things before breakfast?
Getting bad at complexity
There is a deep irony that in a period when the UK has expended significantly on higher education, it feels as if we have become worse at making considered, reflective political decisions.
There are reasons why people may have lost faith in politics, of course. The results of the Iraq War were not only calamitous for the Middle East, but for our faith in the politicians and the alleged “intelligence” that took us there.
It seems reasonable to say that the Iraq war made clear the dangers of interventionist action with no plan for the aftermath of success. It seems just as reasonable to say that not intervening could have had equally appalling consequences.
There are reasons why people may have lost faith in politics, of course
These vital events in the political sphere are complex ones. It may not be surprising that in an era that has mainly seen tumbling political party membership until The Corbyn Effect for Labour, and collapsing consumption of the print and broadcast media, people have become more afraid.
Simplistic solutions to complex problems
The likely consequences of such fear were always that we would see a decline in traditional authority figures such as politicians. This has come to pass.
’Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong’
One explanation for the thoroughly unexpected recent turns of events in national and international politics would be that the consequence of this fear is a dual loathing – both of those whom we trusted with handling complexity and whom we now believe let us down, and of ourselves for having been fooled by these charlatans. The two aren’t necessarily logically congruent.
Fear is not a great emotion to help us make good decisions. Loathing is even worse. Unfortunately, fear and loathing appear to have infected political discourse, in ways that would make the late US political commentator Dr Hunter S Thompson weep into his cocaine and Chivas Regal.
The problem with fear and loathing is that those are two very fertile emotions for the planting of simplistic solutions to complex problems. ”Make America great again” could be one such example. ”Let’s take back control (to) fund our NHS instead”, could be another.
As the great H L Mencken wrote in The Divine Afflatus, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”
Complexity is not going away, especially in public policy and in healthcare. If the audience has become fearful, then politicians and public policymakers and system leaders are going to need to up their communications games considerably.
This isn’t impossible. A good teacher can explain complexity appropriately to pupils along the age spectrum. We must hope that our politicians and health and care system leaders can rise to this task.