They both pretended to answer difficult questions when in fact they wriggled out of them. The electorate would respect some candourby Peter Kellner / May 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: Last night, Corbyn proved that Labour stands for something
During last night’s televised leader interviews, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn competed to demand blank cheques. The prime minister would not say how much she is prepared to pay the European Union to achieve Brexit, what the cap would be on the costs for a pensioner needing social care, or whether police and per-child school budgets would keep pace with inflation. Labour’s leader would not say if he wants to reduce immigration, whether he would press the nuclear button or authorise drone strikes on terrorists, or what he would do if the Brexit negotiations with the EU broke down.
Does their failure to give specific answers matter? It shouldn’t. Nobody can be certain what will happen over the course of a five-year parliament. Circumstances change. Growth, tax revenues, the actions of our friends and enemies abroad—all these things are inherently unpredictable. Someone who issued a long list of precise pledges without regard to the need for flexibility in the teeth of “events, dear boy,” would make a terrible prime minister.
My problem with both May and Corbyn last night is not with the fact that they would not be pinned down on a range of issues, but with the way in which they refused to be pinned down. They tried to make out that they were answering difficult questions rather than explaining why they couldn’t. Both leaders spoke as if they were addressing children rather than adults.
What would they have said if they had been more candid? Here are two suggestions, one for each leader? May: “I would like to see more police officers and bigger school budgets. But these depend on having steady economic growth and buoyant tax revenues. I shall do all I can to achieve these things but, to a large extent, they are beyond the control of any single government. So I cannot make firm promises—no responsible leader can.”
Corbyn: “I am not going to tell you whether I would use nuclear weapons, and here is why. Throughout the cold war, the principle of nuclear deterrence was that a potential aggressor should NOT know in what circumstances, if ever, we would use them in response. No prime minister has ever set out the precise criteria for instructing our Trident submarine commanders to fire them; nor shall I.”
Doubtless such statements would be mocked by opponents in other parties and sections of the media. But I wonder whether voters might end up having more respect for politicians who displayed such candour?
Added to that tactical argument for honesty is a more principled one. Despite occasional referendums, ours is still fundamentally a representative democracy. We choose politicians to decide issues on our behalf, reconciling conflicting interests, debating the details of proposed legislation and responding to circumstances—sometimes sudden crises—as they evolve. We choose, or should choose, our leaders not because we know precisely what they will do but because we don’t. Whether we realise it or not when we cast our votes, we are making a judgement more about character than policy. We are implicitly deciding which candidate, party or leader we trust most to act competently and intelligently and stand up for the interests of people like us.
Winston Churchill understood this. On becoming Prime Minister in 1940 he went out of his way to make clear the country’s plight and avoid false optimism: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Admittedly he did not have Jeremy Paxman or Andrew Neil bludgeoning him in front of a microphone. On the other hand, Britain at that time faced extinction as a nation, yet Churchill still reckoned that brutal honesty would command more respect than than morale-boosting but empty promises.
Such is the way modern elections are run by cynical behind-the-scenes tacticians that very few modern politicians dare to follow suit. They fear that they would lose votes if they did. Perhaps they right. But, if they are, then in the end this sorry state of affairs is more our fault than theirs.