Julian Huppert, Lib Dem PPC for Cambridge, has written on the CaSE blog about the need for more qualified scientists and engineers in parliament. The material they consider is increasingly technical and important, goes his argument, and cannot be left entirely to the layperson. Yet more MPs from “media, marketing and PR” are the antithesis of what parliament really lacks, which is not only qualified scientists, but also a commitment to the broad concept of the scientific method.
I am basically in agreement with him – though I think I’d substitute “nerds in general” for scientists and engineers. The need for the latter may be particularly acute right now, but in general I’d argue it’s the pursuit of an established body of technical knowledge that counts. People with deep technical knowledge are not only useful in themselves, they tend to be good at recognising expertise in others, and to understand the difference between challenging an opinion and railing against a fact. We need more scientists, sure, but we also need more ICT experts and more tax experts. There is – to my joy – an organisation that exists purely to promote better use of evidence from history in policy-making (it’s called History and Policy) which would probably favour the idea of more historians being elected to parliament. Stuff in enough indispensible professions and you’ll very quickly end up with a parliament full of technocrats. And it is at that point that we have to concede that our argument is, by its nature, elitist.
Consider the astronaut
The astronaut is one well-qualified individual. For a start he (or occasionally even she) has to be a jet pilot. That’s just the basic qualification required by NASA. Getting to be a jet pilot is tough, and lots of people who try never make it. Most of those that get through make entire careers out of it and are rightly regarded as outstanding individuals, physically, intellectually and psychologically. But this is just the baseline for being an astronaut.
You need a degree in mathematics, engineering or a science too. Then you get to apply for your twenty months’ training. If you make it, and don’t drop out, you need to pass a physical examination, be within a certain height range, have perfect eyesight and reasonable blood pressure. An astronaut needs to be at the peak of every physical and mental game going. And they need to have done a tough degree. They defy every stereotype we have about what people are like – that everyone has different strengths, that there are jocks and there are geeks and never the twain shall meet. These people have all the strengths.
Such people are, obviously, rare. Fortunately, rare is all they need to be at the moment, because no country’s space programme can afford to train and send into space more than a handful of them. The population of most countries – never mind America, Russia and China – are amply enough to generate all the outstanding astronauts we need.
Why can’t more people be like Evan Harris?
Now, consider the MP. The ideal MP likewise has to bust the usual boundaries – though in their case, it’s not about combining intelligence with physical prowess, but with social prowess.
The ideal MP is both a highly and a deeply intelligent person. They have a questing, independent, rational and giant brain. They need to be self-questioning, as aware as possible of their biases, they need to be reasonable in debate and relentless in their ability to master every new sheaf of documents put in front of them. They need to be cool-headed and swayed by facts and proven expertise rather than the shrieks of the opinionated – yet they also need the ability to question received wisdom and critique the status quo. They need, in short, to have a basic adherence to the principles of scientific method, whether or not they happen to be trained scientists.
But the ideal MP also has passion and bonhomie – 646 technocratic sociopaths with high IQs are no good to anyone. The ideal MP cares deeply about their constituents, and knows why they care, and knows how to show it. The ideal MP, it goes without saying, is honest and holds themselves to high standards of probity. They have a sense of right and wrong that never descends into dogma, religious or otherwise. They can’t stand up in front of a crowd of people and say “I understand that you all oppose stem cell research because it seems big and scary, but actually that’s just because you’re a bunch of ill-informed cretins and I discard you” because if they did that they wouldn’t last long at the ballot box. And wouldn’t be a particularly big-hearted human being either. We need big-hearted.
The MPs I have in mind who seems to make a good job of breaking these boundaries are Evan Harris and David Howarth. Even when I was a politically apathetic know-nothing I’d heard of Evan Harris. He is intelligent and passionate and driven and well-regarded. On his particular subjects he is unstoppable. David Howarth has less of a public profile and more lawyerly restraint, but his work on civil liberties these last couple of years has been heroic, and his personal standing in Cambridge is enormous. And I can’t but notice that, like the astronauts, both of these people underwent lengthy training to enter professions that most people regard as pretty impressive ends in themselves – medicine and academia.
I’m sure there are similarly impressive MPs in all parties, by the way – these are just the ones I know most about. But my question is this – surely it can’t be impossible, in a country with a population of 60m, to come up with 646 Evan Harrises and David Howarths, can it?
Who we get instead of astronauts
The trouble is, the circumstances of our political system don’t favour the Evans and Davids of this world. Three types of MP seem, to me, to consistently over-perform at selection, and thus at election – and they are not necessarily all from “media, marketing and PR”. First is the super-councillor, who has spent twenty years tramping the streets and complaining about recycling provision in their home town, and has thus won the hearts of the local activists and the platform of a “strong local voice”. Of course, there’s nothing to say a super-councillor can’t also have all the qualities of an ideal MP. But they can also turn out to be intellectually mediocre lobby fodder who’s been on-message for so many years that they’ve forgotten how to question it. (Gee, which backbench can I be thinking of?)
Second is the passionate believer. The passionate believer takes a pride in listening to the heart and excluding the head, sometimes explicitly rejecting the value of a scientific approach. They will often talk about their political beliefs in highly emotive terms. They will generally, though not invariably, be small-c conservative in their outlook because we tend to form our strongest emotional attachments with our past – though they will not recognise this or any other bias. They will not be good at acknowledging that alternative points of view exist. They tend to get selected because they are often passionate-sounding communicators, and party activists have an exaggerated reverence for anyone who can get along well with people on the doorstep. The fact that they may be unable to reason their way out of a paper bag is a lesser consideration. (Gee, which MP can I have in mind here?)
The third type is the careerist, a typically young and fairly highly qualified generalist, who for whatever reason has the party machinery behind them. Of course, it’s not impossible for them to be a political astronaut. Lack of experience does not preclude anyone from being a brilliant MP waiting to happen, and only ageists believe otherwise. But, as with the super-councillors, the law of averages suggests it won’t necessarily be the case. Not as often as the parties try and make it happen. So you end up asking yourself – are these careerists really the super-MPs one would like to think, or have they just put themselves, quite deliberately, in the right place at the right time, and impressed the right people? Are they actually a bit mediocre, a bit entitled, a bit weak in both mind and spirit, a little bit over-infested with groupthink? Well, there’s examples from all parties we could call on there.
Won’t somebody think of the democracy?
I’d happily dump the lot of them. The trouble is that, even though I basically agree with Huppert that far too many MPs are ill-informed and irrational as pigs in shit (not his actual words) and I think we need more highly informed people, from all fields, in parliament – well, I bloody would say that, wouldn’t I.
The fact is, if we’re going to go down this necessarily elitist route, we need to be ready to answer valid questions about it. What is our response to the charge of elitism? Do we go down the Oxbridge admissions route and say it loud and proud – elitism is good, provided it’s elitism of the intellect? Is a technocratic democracy a healthy one? What if people just don’t like and don’t vote for the technocrats we favour? Why is a technocrat a demonstrably better option for people than a hearts-and-minds demagogue? Isn’t the latter closer in behaviour and outlook to the majority, and thus more representative? Isn’t representation important? If it isn’t, why do we fuss about women and ethnic minorities?
I don’t have the answers, of course. As someone from the dreaded “media, marketing and PR” world, very few of the questions I ask typically have quantifiable answers. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get asked them if you’re going to gun for a technocratic parliament.