Monday, 2 September 2013

On The Wisdom of Crowds and The Instincts of Cowards

DunciadThey think themselves lions, stallions, perhaps the more imaginative among them unicorns or some rare form of tropical cuckoo, but the truth for anybody with the eyes to see it is that most politicians are pure bred mule. They are our ultimate beasts of burden. They carry our heaviest loads on the stoutest of legs because the political process has bred them that way. Crossing the stud Circumstance with the bitch Necessity we produce these strange snorting hybrids with small brains and hardened backs, able to move intractable loads over rough terrain. Yet they’re also cautious beasts. They move slowly on the hoof and even the best of them are rarely amenable to changing direction or choosing the hard trail over the easy.

It’s the nature of their existence that politicians want to be liked by their masters. The cycle of election and re-election encourages the characteristic moderation obvious in their species. The political system is inherently reactionary and this is one of the great benefits of our parliamentary democracy. No one government, in theory, can harm it enough within four years to destabilise the country.

The great irony, of course, is that this breeds a tendency towards caution that ensures that the majority of our politicians remain largely anonymous. They never get the fame they so obviously crave. We only remember those rare few with the red flash of devilment in their eyes. It’s the wilful and bold who catch our attention, those that relish the difficult decision and the principled defence. Those politicians we rightly remember as either great representatives of the state or twitching fools who led us ankle deep into our historic follies. Sometimes the separation between the two is hard to distinguish. Margaret Thatcher was, for some, our finest post-war Prime Minister because her convictions were stronger than those of the weak gents hanging around the old Tory Central Office. Others consider her a divisive ideologue whose policies continue to harm the country which has never truly recovered from the splits her policies deepened and spread.

Which brings us to Syria…

This side of a nuclear Tehran, no subject wears down the scratching post as quickly as Syria. You can trouble your skull until the bone flakes under yours nail but you’ll find no answer to the question ‘what do we do next?’ This ethnic civil war is as deathly and impenetrable as the darkest well of the deepest missile silo. Yet despite the complexity of the situation, it doesn’t stop newspapers from printing polls that boldly proclaim that the British public are against intervention in Syria by about two to one.

I’m never sure how to take these figures other than with an antacid. News reports present them as unquestioned statistics. The implication is that there is an innate wisdom of the crowd that politicians should heed. We’re reminded that the very same democratic process put them into power, so perhaps it’s no surprise that politicians never dismisses the numbers by pointing out the obvious truth that all polls are an exercise in canvassing the ignorant.

In 2008, a poll of 3000 UK teenagers revealed that a fifth of them thought that Sir Winston Churchill was a fictional character and 47% thought Richard the Lionheart was a figure from English myth. Presumably, nearly six years later, many of those teenagers are now adults able to express equally profound insights about a situation that has baffled most Middle East analysts.

This problem has long been held as one of the faults of democracy but as Winston Churchill said ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.’ Of course, less often quoted was Churchill’s statement from 1919 when he wrote that ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ which just goes to prove that even the wisest of us can be misguided at times.

I’m not saying I’m any more enlightened than the average teenager or the man routinely voted the greatest Briton of the twentieth century. I’m as stumped as anybody about what would make a suitable response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.

America argues that we must do something because genocide by nerve agents should never be tolerated by the international community. They conveniently forget that the West did nothing after Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds of Halabja in 1986, let along their use of chemical weapons throughout the Iran Iraq war in which America supported the Ba'athist regime. The only difference is this time they drew a line in the Syrian sand that Assad deliberately stepped across.

At the same time, we’ve seen the problems of limited involvement in the past. In the aftermath of 9/11, questions were asked about the Clinton administration’s limited response to the 1988 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Had Clinton been bolder, the critics argue, the horrors of the Twin Towers might not have occurred.

Then we have the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, where American might was thrown at a problem and the whole thing quickly developed horns and a poisonous bite.

So we have three examples from recent history: of doing nothing, of doing very little, and going all in with troops on the ground. Somebody has to now choose which path to take.

The most likely outcome is that Obama will take Clinton’s line. America warships will stand off the coast, destroy a few bases and this whole exercise in saving face will have only cost them a few hundred million dollars in cruise missiles. Syria will protest but things will soon return to the potent state of twisted normality once Assad realises that he’s got away with a geopolitical slap on the wrist.

That, however, has almost become a secondary issue. Ignoring the rights and wrongs of action against Syria, what has the last week shown us about the political processes in the UK and US now that the Prime Minister asked Parliament to vote and the Commander in Chief has now passed the problem to Congress? Some claim that democracy has been served and that this is the end of conviction politics. But is that really what we expect of our leaders?

There is no evidence to suggest that the average Member of Parliament (or, indeed, member of Congress) is any more enlightened about Syria that any member of the public, albeit, one of the few who still buys a newspaper. Not every politician voting on Syria will have had a thought-through position on the crisis. Few will have studied the evidence. Our MPs voted on one issue but will have judged it on a thousand unrelated news stories. Some will have ignored the situation in the outskirts of Damascus and voted ‘no’ because they still remember Tony Blair’s dossier of WMDs. Some will have voted ‘no’ with an eye to their pay packets and the next election. Some might have voted ‘no’ simply to spite the Prime Minister. At the same time, some will have voted ‘yes’ because they believe in the politics of red lines in the sand or because of they have a munitions manufacturer in their constituency or because they get some twisted sexual gratification from the idea of it being in their power to launch cruise missile attacks and their new mistress will be impressed… At least two missed the vote because they didn’t hear the division bell ring.

My point is that what we saw last week might have been democracy in action but it was also a decision made less informed and based on the whims of people less qualified to judge. The result was shared indifference, an unclear moral position, and no single person standing up to say ‘this is what we will do and I take the responsibility for these actions’. To put it more succinctly: aren’t there some instances when it’s simply not acceptable to say that 51% of our country believes what you did to be a crime against humanity?

Syria is a gnarly problem but whatever the Prime Minister had decided it must surely have been superior to the current impotent display of political manoeuvring and point scoring. The term ‘conviction politics’ may have fallen out of favour but is this really the best alternative we have? There is nothing wrong with conviction pacifism as there might often be a reasoned case for action. Rightly or wrongly, Tony Blair acted out of his convictions and he was judged by those actions. Whether you agree with him or disagree with him, he acted as a Prime Minister should. Instead, Cameron and Miliband have created a situation in which no decision was taken. We threw a coin and decided to abide by the result. That is worse than appeasement. It’s abandoning principals in favour of a boorish yob neutrality borne out of ignorance. We would have been served just as well turning the debate into a glitzy ITV primetime show, completely with a telephone vote.

Our political system might be a democracy over the course of five years but it is run day-to-day as a constitutional monarchy in the same way that the United States America is a presidential system. Both Prime Ministers and Presidents are meant to make hard but informed decisions based on the best advice of experts and the evidence provided by the intelligence community. It is the role of voters to judge them on those decisions at the end of their terms is office. By placing the question before the House of Commons, David Cameron abdicated his responsibility for the most difficult decision of his Prime Ministership. His motivation for doing so was supposedly his belief in parliamentary democracy but it resembled shrewd politics. Had the Commons voted for military action, he could have moved forward with a mandate that absolved him of blame. In the case that they didn’t vote for action, he steps back, as he’s done, with a shrug of his shoulders and a clear conscience. In either case, he doesn’t have to stand by his decision.

David Cameron washed his hands of Syria the moment he knew he could no longer be blamed for choosing the wrong action or the wrong inaction. He is hoping that responsibility diluted is no responsibility at all and he might be proved right. It has played well with the country and won’t hurt him at the next election. But self-interest has always been one of the very few convictions he has as a politician. He is our affable, likable Prime Minister who loves the job he does so long as he doesn’t have to make any hard decisions. He’s a consummate politician, wanting to be loved by all and, for that reason, he’ll be ultimately remembered by few.


  1. I've been meaning to email you to say how much i've enjoyed reading and catching up with the spine and loving the cartoons/strips..syria - i just dont know - its not something that'll go away and the no vote i suspect will be revised by dave when it suits...anyway enough of heavy matters! a friend of mine has been blogging sparks stuff that you might find interesting..

  2. Ah, many thanks for the link. Listening to it now and it's fascinating stuff.

    Glad you're back, though you come back and find me being so bloody miserable. I'll try to perk up. All this Syria business is depressing as hell. Can't see anything changing, mind. Action Dave was so last week. He's enjoying playing Democratic Dave this week. Next week he'll probably be Sporting Dave and the week after Juggling Dave or something equally popularist...

  3. A reporter once asked Sid Vicious, how do you think the man on street feels about your music, Sid answers, I've met the man on the street, and he's a c**t.

  4. LOL. I've never heard that but my estimation of Sid Vicious has just gone up considerably. That's so very true. In fact, it perfectly fits the subject of my next blog post, which I'll about to publish...

  5. What Sid failed to notice, was he was a man on the street

  6. Ha! I think you're trying to tell me something. ;)

    Seriously, having blogged for god knows how long and met all kind of people, I have a pretty good idea about human nature. There's about 20% of people who are good people who you'd like to call friend. They're the ones who go out of their way to help you. About 70% of people are just people. They're not particularly engaged with the world. They just exist in a kind of uniform blandness. Then there's about 10% of people who are just evil bastards and you should keep away from them. My numbers might be out a little here and there but I think it's generally right.

    There's a quote by Swift I constantly repeat and that's: 'I hate and despise the animal called Mankind, but I like the occasional Tom, Dick, and Harry.' It's probably one of the wisest things I've ever heard and I swear by it.