Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
In a recent interview, Ed Milliband said “ I think I am more intellectually self-confident than David Cameron, actually”. Putting aside the point made on Have I got News for You that people who are intellectually self-confident very seldom go around saying so, Milliband’s statement goes right to the heart of not only what is deeply wrong in the Labour party, but also in politics as a whole. It also goes a long way to explaining the explosive popularity of UKIP.
First, let’s debunk his statement in a way of which he would presumably approve – the intellectual way. What would Socrates have said about this? His view was that the sign of a truly wise man was how much he knew he didn’t know. As another great intellectual, T.S. Eliot, poetically put it later, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless”.
Now to the response of most people living and working in the real world: That the problem with politics is definitely not that it doesn’t have enough intellectuals, but that it is so woefully deficient in common sense.
I was always struck by what Zeno’s Paradoxs said about these two ways of tackling the world- intellectualism and common sense. A tabloid combination of Zeno’s paradoxes is this: A tortoise is going from a rock to a lettuce leaf, say, 10 meters away. At five meters, Tortoise has half-way to go. Halfway along that distance remaining (at 7.5 metres) he still has 2.5 metres to go. This 2.5 metres is further divisible by half, to which he must travel before he gets to the leaf. In fact, the distance he has to go to the delicious lettuce is always infinitely divisible in half. Therefore, the Tortoise can never actually reach his snack – says the intellectual analysis. Intellectuals then agonise over this problem, trying to find some mathematical way to prove that Tortoise gets his lunch.
Meanwhile back in the real world, Tortoise goes from the rock to the lettuce leaf, gobbles it up, and ( with apologies to more sensitive readers, here) has a dump, and trundles off.
The paradox is a fascinating thought, but also illustrates how looking at something intellectually can come up with what is quite simply the wrong answer – (tortoises obviously do reach their lunch) – but an answer which it is difficult intellectually to disprove.
Politics often feels like this: Ever such clever people with splendid degrees all get together, think very hard, and then come up with an answer that obviously has nothing to do with the real world.
Perhaps this has something to do with Parliament not having enough scientists. Thatcher was a scientist. Her discipline was evidence, dealing with the realities of the world, explaining them, and then working out the implications. She knew that you cannot erase, for example, gravity, by finding a way of disproving it.
Either way, it is infuriating for the public, who instantly see that Tortoise gets his lunch, whilst intellectual politicians engage in very clever debates that do not actually help much. More than that, it is frightening because the world is a dangerous place. Take the mess we are now in with Ukraine. Again, going back to the quiz show ‘Have I got news for you’, their title sequence has featured a cartoon Russian turning off the oil turning off Europe’s lights on episodes old enough to be repeated on Dave. And yet we hear from the Foreign Secretary that it’s okay, because Europe is ‘now’ beginning to think about becoming more energy-self-sufficient.
“What?” screams the person who takes even the slightest interest in politics. “How have we known being dependent on Russia was a disastrous plan, and yet the people we pay to protect us didn’t?” That is why people are angry. It makes me angry – because it matters. It really, really matters. It matters far more than whether Jeremy Clarkson said a bad word or not. It matters much more than who won the Eurovision song contest. It matters much more than lovely words about unity and freedom.
It matters because it is real and can affect every single one of us, our children and our lives in almost unimaginable ways. People know this. What you need at a time like this is not ‘intellectual self-confidence’, which can be displayed around an intellectually-elite dinner-party table, but someone who actually knows what’s going on and has a plan.
UKIP have rightly diagnosed this, and the cause of people’s anger. But it is very easy to be angry – we all like a rant and a rave and put the world to rights. But have you ever noticed that after your rant and your rave, the world is just the same? The really difficult thing is to convert that passion into a calm, effective plan for making things better, then work very, very, hard to make it happen.
Yes, UKIP’s anger might appeal to people who want politics to exist in the real world. Yes, they are right that Milliband’s left-leaning intellectual elite made talking about issues like immigration dangerously taboo. But the reality is that although UKIP may reflect people’s emotions, they have never shown any interest in the next stage – so vital for actually protecting the country – turning talk into walk.
Talk is cheap, (and politicians are generally very good at it.) But when it comes to the walk, UKIP sadly look very much like other politicians who talk big and do little. For example, despite all the noise, UKIP’s MEP’s have had the worst record of attendance in European Parliament, and actually voted against cutting the EU Budget. No one in UKIP seems to have done any homework whatsoever on that dull but vital requirement of changing things – working through the detail. There’s no detail on deficit reduction, how to sort our border agencies – nothing except anger that it’s bad. The best will in the world is nothing if you haven’t thought it through and don’t have a detailed plan.
Yes, I understand people are angry, but it would be a tragedy for Britain if the product of the nation’s justifiable anger was to blockade the party that actually has done the dull, unsexy work of making a plan; and is actually doing the dull, unsexy work of sorting out our almost terminally wrecked immigration system.
It would be a tragedy if anger at the fact politics has been ruled by left-leaning elites defeats the party which actually will grasp reality, and will give us a referendum in Europe. It would be a national disaster if the momentary satisfaction of an emotional protest in reality elects a politician like Milliband, who thinks the UK’s future rests on his ‘intellectual self-confidence’; And like cutting our dependency on Russian oil, this matters. This isn’t a game, it’s real. And it really, really, matters.