Monday 22 July 2013

When politicians deliberately blind themselves

I structured my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes? like a whodunnit, and I've been fascinated that reviewers, including those amateur reviewers on Amazon, have begun to apologetically give the game away.  Who did the deed?  The middle classes themselves apparently.

The reason I'm fascinated is that, while there is more than an element of truth about it - the middle classes cheer-led the disastrous processes which destroyed them - that wasn't quite the solution to the conundrum I had in mind while I was writing it.

In fact, if anything did for the middle classes, it was the decision by Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson to do away with exchange controls in 1979, without putting in place any mechanism to ration the amount of money pouring into mortgages - which is why this generation of middle class home owners will be the last.  More about this (and more people who wielded the hatchet) in Broke.  But it puts Lawson firmly in the frame.

I listened to him on Any Questions this last weekend from Bridport, and felt I could discern an important clue about why things have gone the way they have for the middle classes.

Answering a question about the decision to grade primary school pupils, he came out with a slightly portentous but overwhelmingly true political maxim: it is never a good idea to suppress the truth.

This is absolutely right, though the objection to testing in primary schools - though I'm not sure this applies to the present plans - is that it obscures a more fundamental truth.  But let's leave that on one side.

The reason I remembered this maxim is that it came immediately after Lawson's exchange with Paddy Ashdown about shale gas, where Lawson laid down the law: it is quite impossible, apparently, for fracking to affect the water supplies.

When Paddy queried this, Lawson said: "It hasn't happened anywhere in the USA.  Name me a site, name it."

Paddy, of course, couldn't name one because he had quite reasonably not prepared for such a boneheaded approach, but he might have looked at the so-called 'List of the Harmed' for a list of sites and individuals claiming that they have suffered from the shale gas industry.

The problem was not that Lawson was wrong.  I don't know the results of the class actions against fracking. The trouble was that he had adopted the politician's response to inconvenient truth: he denied it was possible.  The logic was pretty clear: fracking is harmless, therefore there can be no examples of harm.

This is the way that governments tend to think, and especially centralised ones like the UK where the administration is to some extent protected from local evidence to the contrary.  Beef is safe, therefore BSE is impossible.  And the dangers of this approach, as Paddy Ashdown said, is that no precautions are taken either.  No action at all to tackle problems, of course, because they are impossible.

The worst example has been the way the GM industry has pursued small or organic farmers who complained that their seeds had been contaminated by GM genes.  They were taken to court for patent infringement.  Because contamination was impossible, therefore any evidence must be fraudulent.  It is still going on now.

This is what the philosopher Karl Popper was talking about when he coined the phrase 'the open society', where people were free to point out inconvenient evidence to the central state.  Open societies are more effective because they see things clearly.  As Popper put it, they "set free the critical powers of man".  That is the huge advantage of localism over centralism: they see the inconvenient truths and accept them - without having to go through a generation of blind government resistance to what ought to have been obvious from the start.

The real task perhaps is to set free the critical powers of Nigel Lawson.

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