“You can’t handle the truth!” But can we?

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2005

My regular reader will know that I try and live up to my homepage promise not to ‘toe the party line’. But, sorry, there’s an election on, so for the next month there’s nothing but slavish obedience to the cause of Lib Demmery @stephentall.org. Normal service will be resumed on 6th May as I wait by the phone for Charles’s call from No. 10, and ponder which cabinet post he might offer me. See, I’ve started already.

So why am I voting, campaigning and living Lib Dem for the next 29 days? After all, liberals tend not to like parties or interest groups at all: they distort judgement. Nowhere is this more true than in party politics, where normally rational and intelligent human beings will advocate positions contrary to their beliefs out of party loyalty, rather than the intrinsic merit of the argument. It’s what brings politics into disrepute.

Of course, the reason this happens is that we have a media which loves nothing better than to ignore the rough-and-tumble of policy debate, and instead kick up a rumpus about whether Gordon’s thrown another hissy-fit at Tony. On one level, fair enough: gossip is often more interesting, and occasionally more revealing, than earnest discussion of policy.

But we’ve (and I use the personal plural pronoun quite deliberately: who buys these papers and watches the programmes that debase debate?) created a climate in which party disagreements are, of necessity, suppressed.

Party conferences, where once members and activists could wrestle and wrangle with thorny issues, have been castrated to become glossy, glitzy, glam-fests, at which no hint of dissent may whisper its name, however gently. Lib Dems, as a breed, tend to be a bit too spikily non-conformist for this to have been adopted wholesale, but let’s not pretend we’re perfect.

All mainstream politicians have learned the oft-repeated lesson – that “the public doesn’t like split parties” – to which there can only be one response: if this maxim is true (and I have my doubts), then the public should grow up, and realise that all parties, everywhere, are split, longitudinally and latitudinally. In reality, British political parties make EastEnders’ Slater family look like doyennes of restrained harmony.

We should none of us be afraid of a bit of good, honest, open argument. Personally I’m a great believer in the Hegelian dialectic of thesis + anti-thesis = synthesis. It’s how most good organisations work. And it’s how political parties operate today, but behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes and ears of media snoops. I wonder what would happen if, just occasionally, we exposed our policy-crunching to public gaze?

Would Labour have managed to sell the idea of foundation hospitals to a sceptical electorate if Chancellor Gordon Brown and then-Health Secretary Alan Milburn had proposed and explained their alternate visions of the NHS to the Labour Party conference, and asked for a vote of the membership?

Would the Tory Party have avoided their messy half-hearted support for ID cards if their leader Michael Howard, a natural authoritarian, had openly debated with his Shadow Home Secretary, the ever-so-slightly-libertarian David Davis, the schemes’ merits and pitfalls?

Might the Lib Dems have avoided future trouble by trying to resolve the differences which exist between those of us who hold firm to liberal economics which place the consumer first, and those who favour a planned economy which prioritises producer interests?

Political parties are creations of society. I don’t blame the managers and spin-doctors for running a slick media circus designed to prove everyone’s singing from the same hymn-sheet. It’s their job, and we’ve grown so accustomed to this smooth-finished politics that anything showing a slight rumple is pounced on by the media and political opponents as a cataclysmic split. Indeed, we’ve even re-designated the word ‘gaffe’ – where once it meant a social blunder (like turning up at a party without a present for the host, or refusing to attend your son and heir’s second marriage) it is now the term given to a fact which, conventional opinion holds, should remain discreetly veiled.

The impact of this bottling-up is ugly. Political parties no longer have a pressure valve – resentment against unpopular decisions can build up, especially when any questioning is deemed to be disloyal. It also explains in part, I believe, the pathetic ‘Yah! Boo!’ mud-slinging much in evidence at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions. After all, the best way of distracting attention from your own frailties is to portray your opponent as the devil incarnate. The result is that politics is imploding in on itself. And then we wonder why turn-out is down.

“You can’t handle the truth!” So shouts Col. Nathan Jessop, played by Jack Nicholson, in the film ‘A Few Good Men’. I’m too much of an optimist to hope that’s not true. But there’s only one way to find out. Just not for the next 29 days.