Self-Obsessed

Clearly, today’s title could have been applied to the vast majority of the 463 posts which proceeded it – but, for once this is not all about me.  OK, if you insist, at least some of it isn’t about me and it was inspired by another.

On Friday, I caught our Prime Minister talking on the news about the situation in Crimea.  I am under few illusions that I am as egocentric as the next man (even when the next man happens to be a rampant egomaniac), but even I would have struggled to start quite so many sentences on the subject of the Crimea in the first person.  In the majority of cases, it wasn’t even the first person plural – no, Mr Cameron prefixed most the sentences I heard with the word “I”.

This started me thinking that perhaps, despite the evidence of this blog, I am still insufficiently self-obsessed for a career in politics – or at least one at (or near) the top.  Whilst the last 400 years have generally seen a move away from an earth-centred universe towards a heliocentric one and finally one which lacks any kind of centre at all (and, indeed, makes the whole concept meaningless), many politicians seems to have placed the centre a lot closer to home.  I suppose the clues were there to be seen…

Anything which might be considered a success, howsoever caused, is claimed as proof of the correctness of the path being taken.  Only this week, the Business Secretary congratulated the government for Hitachi moving its rail division HQ to the UK.  I notice he (and his predecessors and colleagues) talk to the press much less rarely to take the rap when a large corporation leaves the UK taking its jobs with it.  In fact, if things go wrong there seems to be a general hierarchy to the excuses – you blame the previous government, failing that the international situations (out of our control, mate) is a decent backup and failing that you blame something like the weather (or, as I heard this week, I think a corporation – rather than the government – blamed the timing of Easter for its substandard performance.  How foolish of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to fail to consider the impact of its work on corporate results in the 21st century).  Actually, the current government has – on occasion – taken a rather novel approach to deal with the disastrous economic and social consequences of some of their policies: they have decided that things going so badly actually supported their plan and proved it was the right thing to do (presumably, had things gone better they would have abandoned the policies in question and issued a grovelling apology?  Or perhaps, the government – like me – grew up watching Paul Daniel’s Bunco Booth, and unlike me took it as a model to be followed?).

I think a lot of these problems arise from the unfortunate human habit of believing that one is right.  I am afflicted by this particular malaise myself – but do have the benefit of being extremely fickle in my opinions.  So much so, that I have been known to start a sentence with one opinion and finished it convinced of the completely contradictory one.  I often only discover what I think by listening to what I am saying (never wise) – this seems to be particularly true at work where I seem to do some of my best “thinking” by flapping my mouth in public.  I do go to some trouble to seek out views that are not my own, particularly if they are articulated by someone with some skill in cogent thinking and explanatory power.  It is usually, initially at least, irritating to find someone can argue a viewpoint you disagree with and do so convincingly – but it does tend to lead to a more complete and balanced understanding of the issues.  I would give honourable mentions here to Roger Scruton (a philosopher with whom I share almost no political common ground but whose Points of View are always full of insight) and Victoria Coren-Mitchell (who both in Heresy and her Observer column always manages to come at an issue from a new direction).

Problems can even arise if you doubt your own rightness and refer to others.  I once arrived at a meeting very early indeed (about 6 hours) as a result of an error of this type.  I was the secretary to the meeting and wasn’t quite sure when it began, so checked with the chairman.  He confirmed my belief – and so we both arrived incredibly early.  It later became clear that his information had, in fact, come from me – and so I had, inadvertently, checked with myself!   Even checking with many others can go wrong, I well remember a situation where a particular part of a market design was believed to be so poor that anything would be an improvement.  After many, many hours (and £s) of work, a new design was produced and everyone was able to agree about one thing: it was MUCH worse than the thing it was intended to replace.  The dear old Coalition seem to have fallen foul of much the same issue with its change to student funding – it would seem that not only is it rather unpopular (especially with the young – though luckily they tend not to vote) but it also seems to be even more expensive that the system it replaced.  Since its sole benefit (so far as I can determine) was to reduce costs, this seems to have been somewhat of an own goal.  I am beginning to wonder if when you have a system that everyone can agree is so bad it can’t be made any worse, the last thing you should do is try and change it – “Do Nothing” really is always an option and often (I suspect) to quickly rejected.  I fear our whole society, and government in particular, feels it must be seen to be doing SOMETHING (anything!).  Again, I am guilty of this myself: feeling guilty if I’m doing nothing (and now feeling guilty about that guilt.  Arghh!).  Perhaps it is time to embrace indolence and finally realise my ambition to become a flâneur.  Well, it’s either that or take my self-obsession to the next level and run for office!

Parlimentary reform

I find myself growing both more interested in, and more depressed by, politics as I grow older.  I’m not sure if this latter is down to the ageing process, or a catastrophic decline in the nature of politics – or both.  Nevertheless, I think this interest would please my old history teacher who I always suspected was into political history.  Prior to this more recent turn of events, he did also manage to do an excellent job of interesting me in history – though I didn’t pick it at A-level it is an important part of my adult (in body if not mind) life.

When I was younger, politicians seemed to be men of advanced years with some experience of real life whereas now many are younger than me and most seem to have almost no life experience at all.  As above, I’m not sure if they really have grown worse or whether this is just the natural result of having been around the sun all those additional times (even if, being British, I couldn’t see it for quite a lot of that time).  Nevertheless, my unwanted – but nonetheless delivered – chronological seniority to much of the cabinet leaves me willing to pontificate on political matters and in this particular post, on parliamentary reform.

Over the years, I have worked for a range of organisations in both the public and private sector – though mostly the latter.  None of these seemed at all keen on me holding down other jobs – and particularly objected to me taking any paid employ that used the skills and talents they were expecting me to be devoting to their service.  Many of those we employee to govern this nation and to whom we give the responsibility to spend vast quantities of our money, on the other hand, seem to view this role as insufficient to their o’erweening sense of self-importance (or avarice) and find it necessary to hold a wide range of other, often extraordinarily well-paid, jobs using the knowledge and skills they have gained whilst in our employ.  It seems rather a curious state of affairs that this is not allowed to the vast majority of the lowly employees of this land, who can generally do little harm to the UK’s fortunes on their own, but is allowed for those with such ostensibly crucial roles in all our prosperity.  I really feel that once elected, MPs should be devoting 100% of their efforts to the proper management of this county’s affairs and not allow themselves to be distracted by other activities.  They certainly shouldn’t be allowed to profit from such activities, though a modest amount of pro-bono work might be considered permissible – as long as it could be clearly demonstrated that it did not adversely affect their real job.  How can we the electorate have any confidence in the probity of our elected representatives if their outside work is bringing in so much more money than their official position?  We quite rightly wouldn’t trust a police officer who was receiving many times their salary from another source, but seem to think this is fine for an MP – how odd.

As an old romantic, I like to think of the role of MP as being one of public service – rather than as a wizard wheeze to self-enrichment (or in the case of many of our current lot, who seem to have started pretty wealthy, even greater self-enrichment).  I like to imagine that they should be a common good – though, it is noticeable that many things which were once considered a common good are now considered as a benefit only to the recipient.  Rather than being a benefit to the nation as a whole, higher education is now considered as a benefit to the student and one which should be re-paid if their salary ever reaches a certain threshold.  I have to say that if this had been the case back in 1984, I would probably not have gone into higher education  as then (and now) I am not at all keen on running up debts.  If the role of an MP is now primarily perceived as a benefit to the MP rather than a common good, then presumably similar principles should apply.  We would continue to pay our MPs a salary, but it would be considered a loan.  If, after their stint in the corridors of power, their salary reaches a certain threshold then they will be required to repay the loan.

I like to thank these two simple measures would improve the standards of parliamentary democracy and save the country a few quid into the bargain!  I await the party willing to implement my ideas – well, it’s either that or start my own and that sounds like hard work.  I suspect a benevolent dictatorship (well, relatively benevolent) would be easier (and cheaper) to establish – maybe I’ll save that as a project for my retirement…