Politicians cannot be the perfect blend of intellectual and action heroby AC Grayling / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Should politicians be thinkers or doers? The hope that springs readily to mind is that they should be both, as judiciously as possible. There is truth in this cliché—but the key is the role played by judiciousness. The point is interestingly various: thinking should sometimes prevent doing; thinking should help to distinguish which of competing options for doing is best; thinking sometimes just is doing; the necessity for doing has to cut thinking short sometimes; and so forth. It is judiciousness that tells us which to follow, in each case.
President Barack Obama is regarded as a thinker for whom the pale cast of thought undermines the native hue of resolution. Margaret Thatcher is regarded as someone who worked from gut instinct, much action and little cerebration. When Michael Foot, as leader of the Labour Party, visibly thought about his answers during interviews, instead of trotting out instantaneously glib replies, the public thought him useless.
Perhaps the public does not like the idea of thoughtful politicians—holding the opinion that Julius Caesar had of Cassius: that thinkers are sneaky blighters and people should have pre-prepared plans ready to go into action.
We are inclined to overestimate what politicians can achieve. Unless they hold office, there is little they can do. Even when they hold office, they are severely constrained; the most senior figures in the land cannot—except in North Korea—snap their fingers to give effect to their desires. All the further clichés about political office are true: that it is like herding cats; that realities profoundly limit possibilities; that political careers inevitably end in failure. In politics, therefore, thought far outstrips action: what a politician would like to achieve is very unlike what results.
Still: the unthinking doer is a menace, unless luck plays a part, and the non-doing thinker is a frustrating being, because not even luck has much of a look-in. So when the balance lies too far on either side, trouble is likely. But there is another solution: instead of requiring that each politician be the perfect blend of intellectual and action hero, let us remember that politics is an enterprise of parties; and that a party is, or should be, a team; and that in a team there can be both theoreticians and practitioners. Human variety encompasses those who are good at dreaming up schemes and those who like to roll up their sleeves. Teaming them up would seem to be the right way to go.
An argument against having doers in office is that there is far too much legislation as it is; too many rules, too much fiddling. Every new government is elected on a manifesto and has to deliver a raft of laws embodying its promises. Earlier it was remarked that politicians are very limited in what they can do, and here it is being said that they do too much: but the point is that they are limited by the very officiousness of constant legislation. Drafting of bills, debates in parliament, amendments, additional clauses and eventual enactment all take time; and the new act of parliament is rarely a candidate for quick repeal if, as with so many, it proves not to have achieved the intended improvement.
One main reason for this is that the worst crime (though it should be the greatest virtue) in politics is changing one’s mind—“U-turns” are manna to a press punitively eager to make the business of government hell. In this respect, then, doing is unthinkable: another nice variation on our theme.
The difficulty about thinking in the hurly-burly of affairs is that there is not enough time for it. Another of those true clichés is that a week is a long time in politics, and some things need to be thought through for longer than a week. When there is insufficient time for the maturation of ideas and the thorough exploration of options based on serious canvassing of opinion, the only alternative is to fall back on formulae, precedent, the least controversial line.
But the old saw governs all, that actions unthought are blind, thoughts unacted are dumb. For this reason alone, politicians should judiciously be both thinkers and doers—or at very least some of them should be one and some the other, and they should (judiciously) be able to fit the two together.