The Death of Rationalism?
I don’t come from a background of politics. I didn’t study it at A-level or University. I’ve never worked as an intern, for a think tank, or as a SPAD. I’m a software engineer by training, and I’ve worked in the private and charity sectors, in a factory, on a farm, but mostly in some form of IT – from programming to systems administration and now security. For me, liberalism is the most rational political philosophy, with strong intellectual underpinnings (some of which are excellently laid out in Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty”, which I’m currently reading).
Part of what drew me to politics was the idea that reasoned debate could win the day. My first political campaigning was with No2ID, where we took to the streets to counteract a strong emotional message (
Nothing to hide, nothing to fear) with the Government’s own information and facts about the National Identity Register. It was hard work, miserable at times, but we won the argument and turned public opinion against the scheme – with a little help from repeated Government foul-ups. There was also a palpable sense of camaraderie among a group of new-found friends from across the political spectrum, who could debate all kinds of issues with mutual respect. The best of my early Lib Dem party conferences were like this too – strong debates with reasoned arguments on both sides, an audience ready to be persuaded by argument, impassioned yet informed rhetoric.
Unfortunately I no longer think this is the case – while I’ve railed at the lack of reasoned debate outside the party, the same malaise seems to have affected us internally too. I’ve voted for policy motions at Conference, trusting the authors, and later found out that the premises were false. We’ve seen the creation of new splinter groups within the party, each claiming to represent the mainstream of the party’s opinion on contradictory policy platforms, ignoring the democratic process by which the party’s policy is decided. I’ve seen people try to spin Conference votes as saying the opposite of what the policy motion passed actually stated. And now I see us scoring national press kudos over a “grassroots rebellion” concerning a series of assumptions and inferences on the “signalling” indicated by a leaked paper which, while undoubtedly concerning, is far more benign in what it actually says than is being claimed. While fabricating a divide between our ministers and the rest of the party might give us a short-term popularity boost ahead of the local elections, it’s not very sensible to inflate the narrative that the party is split – which is seriously hampering people who’d like to vote for us from doing so.
The Blair/Brown style of Government by counter-briefing and leaking disgusted me. It is a little more understandable, albeit still distasteful, in a Coalition government which is still desperately clinging to the concept of collective responsibility rather than allowing Ministers to make clear statements over what compromises each party has made on a given issue. However, if the Lib Dems are going to abandon reasoned, informed debate in favour of who can whip up the most hysteria and sling the most mud, then there is truly no place for rational people in politics.