Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
ConHome readers will remember the grammar schools row of 2007. David Willetts had persuaded the Conservatives to oppose new grammar schools, on the grounds that they were bad for social mobility. Many Tory members and MPs disagreed, however. I remember heated arguments at the Conservative Research Department, where I then worked, and getting incensed when told that “evidence-based policy” meant that a Conservative government should abandon its long-held principle of being in favour of academic selection.
In the grammar schools case, the evidence indeed was that they reduced social mobility – according to a definition created and popularised by opponents of grammar schools. The first response is to criticise the definition, and say it concealed matters of value behind matters of fact. Social mobility can be thought of in two ways. If it is derived by measuring the average collective attainment of children from different social backgrounds, then grammar schools work against it. If, instead, it is derived by considering the attainment of pupils who, thanks to academic selection, can get an education they would not otherwise have been able to afford, grammar schools boost social mobility.
Neither of these claims are actually pure fact (like the speed of light in a vacuum being 299,792,458 metres per second) or pure value (adultery is morally wrong). They’re conditional propositions: if you define social mobility in this way, grammar schools are bad for it; if you define it in the other way, they’re good for it. Most claims in public debate are like these, but seldom presented as such, because a policy’s advocates understandably prefer clarity over complexity.
This use of social science to reach firm policy conclusions, and shut down further debate by appealing to the authority of the “evidence”, as though political life were a form of mathematics, perhaps had its golden age between the collapse of the Soviet Union and 2016. Its exhaustion was evident in the Remain and Hillary Clinton campaigns. Clear messaging, it turned out, does’t need to be based on social scientific facts to be effective.
Vote Leave and Trump and also – very relevantly for the coronavirus – both Matteo Salvini and the Five Star movement in Italy understood how to defeat the tactic of presenting policy conclusions as evidence-based. Expose the sleight of hand, pump out clarity of your own and play to emotions. This is what Michael Gove was doing when he said the British people have had enough of experts.
Raising the tempo and heightening emotions, while disregarding evidence as tainted, is now mainstream across the political spectrum. Witness the speed with which edited footage of the Prime Minister which purports to have him say the coronavirus should be taken on the chin, whereas the full clip has him making the opposite point.
Salvini, unsurprisingly began by blaming “migrants”, and is now demanding the entirety of Europe subject itself to Italian-style lockdown measures. In reality, Italy’s outbreak occurred because there was insufficient testing and isolation in the early stages of the epidemic. Social distancing measures were applied in a manner that was both draconian and haphazard. Hospitals in the prosperous north of the country, where the outbreak is concentrated, are now under extreme pressure.
This contrasts sharply with South Korea’s high tech testing-focused strategy that stresses focused intervention, the use of technology to understand people’s movements and therefore trace potential infection routes, as well as aggressive testing. Early reports suggested Italy’s numbers were due to similarly high testing levels. This turns out to have been false. Italy has the same (low) testing level as the UK. Seoul also benefited from higher readiness because of their exposure to several epidemics originating in China, including SARS and bird flu, and so it was able to plan a modern response. Public health not being my expertise, it is better for me to focus on the politics. What’s been effective is South Korea’s approach to communication (as exemplified by this briefing to the foreign media), which is calm, sober, serious and detailed. It is designed to build up the trust necessary to limit an epidemic in an open society.
Unlike “evidence-based” arguments from authority, the South Korean approach explains not only the results, but how they were arrived at. And unlike Salvini, it is not looking to gain attention for itself by attributing blame (and though Beijing deserves blame, now is not the time to pin it on them). The contrast with Trump, who’s putting his own supporters in danger by minimising the risk, couldn’t be starker.
This should give us pause for thought about the importance not specifically of facts in political debate but of empiricism. An epidemic sits at the boundary between the physical science of the virus and the social science of the epidemics. Social science doesn’t produce the “results” that physical sciences can, only pieces of evidence that have to be assessed in the round.
How we assess evidence and governments communicate their assessment – in a way that both builds and deserves public confidence – is a matter of culture. Aided by social media that prioritises the quantity of engagement over its quality, the empiricism of our political culture has been declining sharply. News programme producers prefer famous commentators to those who know what they’re talking about (but who nobody’s heard of). Headline writers want attention, so they spread panic. It applies to politicians and communications directors across the entire spectrum. Centrist Matteo Renzi immediately echoed Salvini’s call for a Europe-wide shutdown. Rory Stewart has got himself into the headlines by calling for the same in the UK. This is part of our comms-dominated political culture: focus on getting your message out, and winning, and if mistrust needs to be stirred up in this process so be it.
This a much bigger deal than this epidemic. It affects our whole political culture in Western democracies.
Politicians and their advisers need to understand that this isn’t House of Cards; people can die because of this culture.
Journalists need to think before accepting Twitter narratives, which encourage polarisation, as the only sort of politics. But most people are firmly pragmatic and middle of the road.
Finally, voters: being a citizen isn’t like buying washing powder. Take steps to inform yourself properly about the decisions you want your elected representatives to make. That’s going to take work. You’ll have to read stuff you’ll find boring, concentrate it and understand perspectives you’re uncomfortable with.
From the time Berlusconi was first elected, Italians thought the answers were easy, now they’re learning they are not. It’s a warning the rest of us need to heed. Democracy is hard work. This epidemic will give us an idea of whether we’re up to it.