There’s nothing like an election campaign for exposing human frailty. Even the act of consuming a bacon sandwich, a simple exercise handled with aplomb by millions of people on a regular basis – seemed beyond one of our party leaders. And it wasn’t his only embarrassment:
“…Ed Miliband… revealed in a car-crash of a regional radio interview that he didn’t know who he was campaigning for there. Whether you love him, hate him, or hadn’t heard of him before reading this blog post, you’d be forgiven for shaking your head. Surely the head of the most popular party in the world’s sixth-largest economy has someone to brief him on such basics?”
The question is posed by Oliver Burkeman in a piece for the Guardian. One might ask why the other party leaders also made some very basic mistakes.
What, for instance, possessed Nick Clegg to propose a televised debate with Nigel Farage? Did it not occur to him that the contrast would not be between the ‘party of in’ and the ‘party of out’, but Britain’s most emblematic pro and anti-establishment politicians?
As for the Conservative response to UKIP – a proxy campaign of vilification – one has to wonder what those behind it thought they were doing. Did no one pause to question whether there was much point in making people who already hate UKIP hate them even more?
What is it that causes our politicians to make so many unforced errors? Oliver Burkeman believes he has the answer:
“We’re similarly shocked whenever authority figures who are supposed to know what they’re doing make it plain that they don’t, President Obama’s healthcare launch being probably the most serious recent example. We shouldn’t really be shocked, though. Because all these stories illustrate one of the most fundamental yet still under-appreciated truths of human existence, which is this: everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.”
Is this right? It is said that politicians these days lack experience of the ‘real world’. But we’re not just talking real world mistakes here – but elementary blunders in public policy and political communication. As unreal and unworldly as such fields of expertise may be, these are meant to be our party leaders’ specialist subjects.
After spending their entire adult lives as policy wonks and/or PR spivs and/or frontline politicians you might think that they’d accumulate some degree of savoir faire. So can it be true that, fundamentally, they don’t know what they’re doing?
It’s a tempting explanation:
“I’ve often thought of my experience of adulthood thus far as one of incrementally discovering that there’s no institution, or walk of life, in which everybody isn’t just winging it. Growing up, I assumed that the newspaper on the breakfast table must be assembled by people who truly knew what they were doing; then I got a job at a newspaper. Unconsciously, I transferred my assumptions of competence to (among others) people who worked in government. Then I got to know a few people who did – and who’d admit, after a pint or two, that their jobs involved staggering from crisis to crisis, concocting credible-sounding policies in cars en route to press conferences, exactly as portrayed in The Thick of It.”
Burkeman’s undoubtedly on to something – especially in regard to politics. But there’s something else that he’s missed – which is that the panicky, last-minute, super-stressed environment in which our leading politicians operate is one that they’ve deliberately engineered. There’s a certain personality type – and here I wouldn’t dream of using a pejorative term like ‘sociopath’ – that thrives on chaos. Some people prefer to give important matters the thought and preparation they deserve, but others know that their own talent lies in merely pretending to have the answers. They’re all front and no depth – which is why they like to keep things shallow.
It is therefore crucial that no one has time to stop and think. Keeping up a relentless pace – regardless of genuine urgency – is of the essence. The faster the news cycle, the more instant the reactions, the better it is for this modern breed.
Of course, such people slip-up sooner or later. After all, they’re only human. Just about.