646 astronauts

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.

43 Comments

  1. Don’t forget that David Howarth was on Cambridge City Council for 18 years, and its leader for 5 years. His standing in Cambridge is in large part due to that patient and longstanding commitment to the city, although I agree that his work since becoming an MP would be worthy of huge respect in its own right.

    (I’m biased, of course, as an employee of David’s!)

  2. It’s an interesting dilemma isn’t it? I’ve long thought that the problem with our democracy isn’t the MPs but that we trust MPs as if they are actually able to do their jobs independently and competently.

    For whatever reason, be it that they are too partisan, that they have ambitions which mean accepting the whip willingly (ooo-er), that they don’t know enough about the subject, don’t *care* enough about the subject, or aren’t the sort to be swayed…MPs are simply not qualified to be the last line of policy discussion.

    I would quite happily settle for MPs that do their job in representing…that is taking their constituency views on board, mixing them in the melting pot with their parties hard-line and coming out with a stance that takes in to account these viewpoints, sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary.

    But the only way I could settle for it is if it wasn’t solely up to them to then determine if law was fair, or legally robust, or free from ambiguity that will lead to abuse further down the line. Before or after debate, or both, there is a hole that could be filled by independent and scrutinised bodies to ensure that all that gets passed is a) reasonable and b) worded tightly enough.

    Let MPs vote on their dangerous dogs act’s, I’d be much happier with knee jerk law making if a relevant set of people were involved in the process to have the authority to actually stop bad law coming to pass. (and the Report stage is, quite frankly, a joke when it comes to ensuring expert opinion is included in laws, especially emotionally and media motivated ones)

    Does this throw up a question about the authority of MPs and ministers as law makers? I guess it does, but then I am of the belief that with some of the law they’ve churned out, whether I’ve agreed with the principle or not, has been so poor that they have lost the right to that direct and unfettered authority.

    1. Hm, so you want Plato’s Guardians to come in, and tell the elected representatives that they can’t pass that law after all? Of course, they’d believe with devout certainty that the basis on which they issued their veto was purely a matter of ‘reasonableness’, or poor drafting …

      There’s a reason that democracy is considered “the worst system of government except for all the other ones”: as soon as you create a group of people with greater rights than the rest and no accountability, they will acquire a collective self-interest and, be they ever so noble, start to act in that interest. Certainly, technical changes could be made to the way parliament processes legislation, so that there was much better opportunity for outside expert witnesses to be heard; but the last word must remain with MPs – which is why we do need to try to improve their calibre.

      1. I’m sorry, but it’s not as simple as improving their calibre. The whole system is set up so that party politics trump constituency interests. It doesn’t matter how balanced an MP is if their heart belongs to the Labour or Tory parties and victory is a matter of authority to govern.

        There are two things that would of course help the situation, first being electoral reform to ensure MPs actually fear their constituency as much as their party whips, and the improvement of the standards of bills.

        I am a little disappointed that you’ve assumed that I am suggesting this group themselves should have no accountability. It’s not about creating a group with super powers over MPs, it’s about creating a process that ensures that bills go through a set of standards, that the law is worded tightly enough.

        I myself was being too loose with my terminology of “reasonable”, but there are clear things that can be taken in to consideration with law making that if strayed from would be clearly in breach of any such codes of conduct.

        For instance the fact that we allow MPs to make legislation that is later found to be able to break ECHR laws surely shows that there is a *functional* failing in the drafting and passing of laws?

        1. Well, it depends what you mean by ‘accountable’. I think no one’s come up with a better form of accountability than election and recall – which means your overseers just become another bunch of MPs, with all the problems you identify. The question is always, “who oversees the overseers?” – and the best (though far from perfect) answer is “the people”.
          But you’re right, of course, that it’s not just about the quality of individuals – electoral reform is the first essential ingredient of political reform

        2. Lee,
          failings in laws are not necessarily ‘functional’, but often an effect of the responsive nature of law-making to public demand for action.

          We already have three readings, a committee stage and reporting stage in the passage of any bill in both houses then amendments before assent is given.

          So I wonder, what additional consideration do you think is reasonable?

          It’s also completely unrealistic to wish to separate constituency interests from party interests, like the economic, social or environmental issues facing people Bristol have no similar basis as those facing people in Aberdeen, Belfast or Cardiff!

        3. Malcom: Without electoral reform the people aren’t anywhere near acceptable, let alone perfect, for overseeing the overseers.

          In my case, if the process the group is to go through is functional (which, in all respects an MP or minister drafting/submitting legislation should be adhering to without such a group) then it’s clear when the rules aren’t being followed. It can become a mutual overseeing quite happily.

          Oranjepan: Yet laws will be passed that affect the whole of the UK despite their relevance only being to a proportion of them…so I fail to see why the constituency level input is not of value.

          I’ve already said that the report stage is a joke. The various readings are essentially an opportunity for cross-political attacks and reiteration of the party line. Having sat through some of the more controversial second readings in the commons (via TV) it’s clear that the amount of honest and constructive debate that occurs is in the minority.

          A lot of time is wasted on the illusion of scrutiny in the House of Commons, and probably the Lords too to some degree. Just because they have X steps doesn’t mean those steps are actually useful or used well.

    2. I think the payroll vote and the promise of advancement within government are big factors in the powers that parties have over MPs. The solution is not to draw ministers (very often) from parliament, but from outside. To better separate the legislature and executive.

      But any movement in this direction – even appointing ministers from the Lords – brings screams of “lack of accountability”. As if ministers being accountable for their ministerial work to their constituents made any kind of sense.

      Of course there are problems with this sort of change, but it is done better elsewhere.

      1. I agree with this. I think the problem is there’s confusion here, too, about what’s meant by ‘accountability’. MPs expect ministers to be accountable to parliament, which is fair enough; but they then refuse to allow anyone to address or appear in parliament who isn’t a member – hence the convention that all ministers should be members of parliament, and the most important ones should be members of the House of Commons – despite the fact that this has to reduce the relevant MP’s effectiveness as an advocate for their constituents’ local interests (if you think that’s a valid function of MPs).

        The answer to this problem is quite simple: permit all government ministers to address and answer questions in the House of Commons, and give the Commons corresponding power to summon ministers whether or not they are MPs; and add to this a severe restriction on the number of MPs who can become government ministers – say 5% of all MPs.

  3. Let’s not forget academics and experts from the arts, humanities and social sciences too.

    Politics, especially Westminster would benefit from such a technocratic approach.

    My solution would be to apply it to the reform of the House of Lords, which even in it’s current incarnation, is full of quite a few esteemed intellectuals.

  4. For a few happy seconds there when I read your title, I wondered if you were going to advocate sending all of the honourable members into outer space for an all expenses paid trip. Oh, but we can dream.🙂

    I agree with you absolutely that experts and nerds would make a wonderful parliament, but then they wouldn’t be representative of the people. In fact, the only way to assure that we had ‘astronaut’ politicians would be if they could be appointed based on their achievements. Perhaps, therefore, it would be an idea to have a number of MPs who are appointed to their office – or maybe we could keep the elected ones separate from the appointed ones; they could perhaps form some sort of ‘second chamber’, which could oversee legislation…

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

  5. Ha – slightly, unreasonably disappointed that you didn’t solve the problem for us..

    Some crude initial thoughts then:

    1. I guess the conflict arises because representative government is a compromise between the function of governing and that of representing.

    2. Democracy means that the trait that people in politics need most is to be effective persuaders. Hence the proliferation of dastardly “media, marketing and PR” types (I too am one, though not for long).

    The proportion of exceptionally gifted persudaers who are also exceptionally gifted in the other areas you mention is probably fairly similar to the distribution of these individuals among the wider population – maybe slightly higher.

    3. Perhaps it then falls to right-minded persuasive people to use their powers for good (promoting the people who they think are best qualified to make decisions) rather than for evil (promoting themselves).

    4. If we were to require our MP’s to be more virtuous (by, say, requiring they pass competency tests before standing for office)then the resulting parliament would be less representative. I’d say that the representative part of this equation is worth maintaining to some extent (so long as the MPs do actually represent their electorates – a separate can o’ worms) but what?

  6. I want to point to Lisa Nowak as an example of why astronauts are not necessarily ideal governors and legislators.

    Although ‘intelligent’ might be make the process smoother and quicker, ‘balanced’ is more reliable over the longer term because (cliche alert) no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

    So maybe you’re touching on the gap between intelligence and wisdom… (I’d also prefer my leaders have a touch of imagination).

    Simply said, we get the parliament we deserve – because it is representative. Whether we like it or not.

    I think it is an authoritarian fallacy to think simply ‘perfecting’ a social structure such as our politics is enough or even possible on its’ own. It doesn’t make us better alone, we must play our parts too.

    The failure of our MPs is a reflection on our failure to hold them accountable – our finger-pointing is our attempt to absolve ourselves of our failure to live up to our responsibilities.

    David Howarth and Evan Harris may be heroic figures as far as you’re concerned, but I must ask how much of it would have been possible without years of committment by hundreds of invisible activists who’ve supported them?

  7. Let’s also bear in mind those who’ve spent years “enforcing” the war on drugs or in the security services & know a fair bit about that area. I can think of few better schools in which to learn what basically works & what doesn’t & what to make of the tabloid “arguments”.

    Magnificent post anyway. This is what the sphere is all about, eh?

  8. Brilliant post Alix, underlines why I really like your blog.

    Astronauts, eh? I couldn’t help but think of one of the central premises of the world created in “Good Bye Lenin”, which you must see if you haven’t already (I could say more but it might give away the plot)

  9. Lee,
    constituency work certainly has value, but it isn’t the be all and end all. Anyway, with a more proportional electoral system a greater balance in emphasis will be found.

    But I also don’t see that the failure of individuals to work effectively is an argument for reform of the process, rather it’s a reason to replace those individuals – as Alix describes, with better representatives.

    Harder working MPs who support electoral reform? When are you going to sign up to that agenda and work to make it happen?

    1. I have signed up to that agenda, cheers. I’m absolutely willing to let electoral reform have it’s shot at making things better…but I find the idea that “better” MPs can be found to change the face of debate in the commons for all three parties is a somewhat fantastical aim while the party machinery moves like it does.

  10. There is an alternative to the 646 astronauts model – instead of focusing on attracting exceptional individuals to parliament, focus on trying to build a system of government that does not allow mediocrities to do too much harm and allows reasonably competent generalists to do some good.

    A left-wing state-sceptical liberal might argue that the whole notion of a centralised representative parliament is flawed, even if those in that parliament are exceptional individuals. They might argue that Arrow’s impossibility theorem (you cannot aggregate differing ranked preferences), hierarchy effects (those at the top don’t know what is going on on the ground), and the sheer complexity of the modern state and the environment in which is operates precludes “effective legislation” emerging from any kind of centralised decision-making body.

    So instead of trying to create a parliament of super-lawmakers, simply create more checks and balances within the structure of government to compensate for the frailties of existing lawmakers, and leave the technocrats in peace to do their work elsewhere (I’d always rather have an engineering graduate working to create more environmentally friendly technology, or a biochemistry graduate working to create cures for diseases, than have them go into government).

    1. This might be called the McDonalds theory of government. I think that’s basically what they do, isn’t it, have a set of instructions for making food that are idiot-proof so that the food is the same the world over.

      When you say “in the structure of government”, what are we talking about? As it stands, the “checks and balances within government” idea could encapsulate both (1) Lee’s suggestion above of a new level of scrutineering (which, as Stuart says, is pretty much the Lords in practice at the moment) and (2) Oranjepan’s assertion that the people ought to be exercising their right to hold government accountabble. Even though they’re arguing about it, both are essentially talking about better checks and balances (or better use of them).

      By the way, pretty much the first reponse to this post was from Jock Coates on twitter who said it was impossible for 646 people to decide anything effectively for the entire nation, whoever they were. And he’s right. So there is a certain theoretical nature to all of this “what’s the best system and how should we populate it” stuff. The best system (or at least, the only truly democratic system) is to have no system.

      Oddly, I think that actually helps Huppert’s argument. Given that the whole exercise is useless, we might as well argue for better-qualified MPs. I find that sits a lot better with me than the usual idea in left/liberal circles that there actually *is* a perfect parliament out there waiting to be elected, and it’s the “perfectly representative” one.

      1. *Yes.* The McDonalds theory of government. I like that.

        When I say “structure of government” I’m using the broad sense of how constitutional structures are set up, and how power is shared between parliament, the crown, the judiciary, local government, the EU, devolved legislature etc (or “how the state is organised”).

        The underlying idea I was trying to articulate was one of scepticism of the ability of the state to solve problems. Furthermore I suggest that people who believe themselves to be rational, informed, and intelligent may fall into the trap of thinking that they can solve problems when in fact they cannot.

        An engineering analogy: nuclear reactors are incredibly powerful and dangerous things. They can do a lot of good when they’re working properly, but have the potential to do a lot of harm when they fail.

        As such, nuclear reactors and their control systems (ought) to be designed in such a way that it doesn’t matter who is in the control room, or even if there is no one in the control room, or even if the person in the control room is Homer Simpson.

        Similarly I am arguing that the structure of the state (ought) to rumble on without it mattering terribly what the calibre of the person in the control room is.

      2. I disagree that 646 people can’t find out what’s best for the nation. With suitable information from their constituents about their views, and from relevant parties, the wisdom of crowds kicks in…but only if they a) don’t have external interests (which includes party allegiances) and b) don’t form coalitions or mind sets which create a “yes” culture.

        I think we can generally be happy that on most issues “b” isn’t a problem on a party level, the parliament system is a fairly good example of disagreement over agreement. The trouble is that because of “a” we generally have only three “people” in the room arguing about any one legislation, and they’re generally able to be boiled down to two opposing ideals in practice.

        1. The trouble with this is that party allegiances will always develop, even if it takes years. It becomes an arms race – as soon as one person realises “Hey, I can get what I want if I vote for this person’s idea which I find unobjectionable and ask them to vote for mine in return” you will have a coalescing of interests.

          Those who stay outside the coalescence will not survive as individual entities. They will literally get voted out, because the coalescing interests will be better organised with their campaigning, OR they will be assumed to belong essentially to one of the larger groups and the subtleties of what they’re actually saying will be ignored (which is more or less where you get to in your last line.)

        2. The problem is that the wisdom of crowds works best when there is a clear, unambiguous question like “how many sweets are there in this jar?”

          I disagree that the questions faced by politicians can be thought of like this, as they include normative aspects that don’t have any independently verifiable “right answer.”

          And as Alix says below, there will always be coalescing of interests, as well as hierarchies, centralization, and other problems that make it difficult for a (relatively) small group of people to identify “the national interest” and implement policies to achieve it.

      1. It really is a concoction of a conservative world-view that party allegiance constitutes an external interest! I agree that it is extreme naivety to ignore the practical self-interest and mutual support provided by parties – in a liberal world our fiercest opponents and critics often our closest confidants!

        Consequently I don’t think either the system or the people are the fundamental problem, but in how one combines with the other.

        So I’d also argue that 646 MPs could form an effective legislature, but this depends entirely upon the support network of the entirity of the social system upon which it rests.

        I love the idea of decentralising the political industry where all the thinktankers and lobbists are employed in a wider base across the country. However that may require a huge increase in the level of commitment to electing representatives which I don’t think a public as cynical with the current vision of disengaged centralised politics as ours would have support for. More devolution and autonomy simply requires more political chambers – regional, continental or hyperlocal – but doesn’t that just creates a bigger trough for more snouts?

        The sacred calf of a ‘strong leader’ or a ‘strong system’ upon which the collective masses can depend really needs to be sacrificed on the altar of individual action and checks and balances as mentioned above: the identity of the people involved and the form of the system are completely subordinate to the results provided.

        But who is going to pop the Westminster bubble?

        1. You seem really happy to misrepresent what I’m saying just because you don’t agree with my viewpoint here? I was talking about the wisdom of crowds aspect, in which external “interests” mean that the individuals mind isn’t clear to just contribute based on what they know and what they can take from the discussion. So yes, that does include party politicial influence.

  11. Well Alix, this is why I’m a fan of wholesale reform. We’re wasting time with the Lords, what we need is to reform the houses in to a legislative house and a representative house (never heard of this before!😉 ). It makes the most sense. In the legislative house (which would have the checks and balances to stamp out bad law) you elect who you want to lead the country and direct the law.

    Then you have an PR system to elect constituency MPs, not free necessarily from the party system but certainly in a representative system that means that your first allegiance is to your local voters.

    The trouble now is we’re trying to mix the two in to one house, people both want to elect a “president” or a “cabinet” in form of a party, and have someone that can look out for them. It’s moronic.

    If people knew that their representative vote would make zero difference to policy direction they want to see, then they get the people that (in theory) are most likely to take as much on board and make an objective vote about it.

    There will never be a perfect system, I think you said this above, even the example I’m saying would see some representatives follow the legislative lead of their party; but there can be a system that is weighed more in balance between the competing areas of party politics and representation.

  12. I’m glad someone thinks we need more engineers in Parliament, I just happen to be an engineer.

    But I thinks we need MPs who have experience as employers, team workers & volunteers. They should have applied for jobs and hired other people. Too many have very limited backgrounds, and are hopelessly out of their depth.

    1. Nice to see you Adrian, having a limited background is not necessarily a qualification for being out of one’s depth.

      Many’s an engineer who’ve dug themselves into holes so deep they cannot escape!

  13. Lee,
    by no means am I misrepresenting your comments, I’m challenging you on the grounds that while what you say may be true in some cases it certainly isn’t in all.

    You place yourself on very shaky ground by emphasising the uncertain nature of one among many disparate influences. It’s simply not a reliable enough position from which to advocate policy.

    I also happen to disagree that partisan influence is necessarily a bad thing in all situations. Maintaining a coherent stance by reconciling the basis of decisions to foundational principles is to be supported, but trying to ignore the difficulty of doing so where competing interests are at work is simply naive.

    Which is why it would be more consistent for you to support greater pluralism and a wider choice of parties than your current oppositional stance.

    I also happen to think it would be more practical for you to work within the current party framework, at least for the time being, if you wish to help work towards the goals you’ve set out. An overly-idealistic approach is rarely constructive.

  14. Alix: to answer your meta-question about elitism, I would say this:

    There is a difference between being elite and being elitist. The difference lies in selection criteria. If you have a job (like astronaut) with highly specific technical and physical requirements, selecting people capable of doing that job becomes an elite process. You are selecting your elite based on performative measures; how mentally and physically tough and creative you are, what you know, how good you are at fine motor control while heavily nasueous. They are, more or less, criteria that are relevant and objective.

    To be an elitist you have to create an elite status (government, for example) and then select for it using methods which are not relevant or objective (such as genetics). A different example would be the university debate; in the 1950s, the elite were selected for the wrong reasons (ability to afford a university education); we were never trying to make our universities less elite, as in, lower quality. Or possibly I ought to say “we shouldn’t have been”.

  15. It seems to me that the situation we have now – with an ever-growing number of careerist politicians and the development of media/marketing strategies – is precisely the result of the downfall of an attempt at technocracy (or, more accurately, geniocracy or ‘aristocracy’ in its purely etymological sense).

    The problem with élites is that they tend to do things even when such things are unpopular, because they know that those things are ultimately a good idea. And they’re prepared to do it in the face of massive opposition because they’re right. And, to an extent, because they believe that a billion flies dining on shite does not necessarily enoble the practice.

    Unfortunately this only works as long as a) they are right – and they’re often not – b) such things can be objectively proved to be right, as opposed to being moral issues, and c) they can be proved right in a short enough time to get re-elected. Oh, and d) the media doesn’t piss all over them for something else in the meantime, which the media tends to do, especially the ‘bloids. One might have thought that the age of the internet would make this better, but of course it’s made it worse.

    Three decades of a hyperuresic media combined with a scandal-hungry public, a few venal idiots in power and some wrong decisions* have led to the situation that came to its apogee under Blair (although it started under Thatcher) where every single decision is analysed for its effect in the media arena as an integral part of being taken in the first place. Thatcher had people who understood media advising her, like Tim Bell and Bernard Ingham, but it was only a matter of time before the middleman was cut out, and the media people themselves took up residence centre stage (and let us not forget that the two most powerful people in the Labour Party and the Leader of the Opposition have all come from media backgrounds).

    So we could have a Government Of All The Talents, sure, but not before a few cultural changes were made, like ignoring the Sun’s point of view, making certain that unpopularity was in itself not an end to a career, and – crucially – having the confidence to believe that not only can crowds be wrong, they usually are. And therein lies the problem, because if the majority are wrong when they disagree with you, how can you be sure they were right to elect you?

    * and some other things, like the growth of the belief that simply having an opinion makes that opinion worth anything, and the fact that people who know what they’re talking about are not expected to argue with people who don’t for the sake of ‘balance’ when the only justified response ought to be “but you’re an idiot and you don’t know what you’re talking about. Shut up and bugger off.” And the fact that anything ‘offensive’ is now verboten, despite the fact that everything is offensive to someone.

  16. The late genius and mathematician Stafford Beer stated this axiom. “Technology can now do anything that can be exactly specified; therefore one does not have to be a technocrat to decide what can and cannot be done. It is up to ordinary people to start specifying.”

    1. I’ve been meaning to write something about Stafford Beer and what he’d make of Labour’s database fixation etc for ages. *prods self*

  17. Rob W: that may be true, but it is very well acknowledged in software engineering circles that the absolute hardest part of the job is transforming the customer’s needs and desires (which are different) into a sufficiently exact specification for the programmers to get on with it.

    So we should be looking for MPs who can understand what the electorate wants and needs and who can convert that into sufficiently well-specified legislation.

    This is not a job “anyone” can do!

  18. I recall a while back hearing about some professions such as engineers being more likely to be right-wing (especially libertarian) & others having a leftward slant, such as librarians.

    I couldn’t actually find any figures, though I would be intrigued by a thorough study.

    http://neoneocon.com/2005/08/30/therapists-and-liberalism/

    What do you think the majority of astronauts would actually say about the issues of our times? Which side would this imaginary person be on?

    Fascinating. Sorry for not getting in earlier, I actually meant to say this a couple of days ago but forgot!

    1. If librarians are left-leaning*, might it not be because they’re employed by the state? I would have thought that anyone dependent on state funding – social workers, teachers, local authorities etc – would tend to lean slightly leftwards, whilst anyone who makes a living through private enterprise would probably have a slight predilection the other way.

      It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if engineers tended to be libertarian, though. There is an argument that people with specialist skills do tend to be, since they know they can do things that other people don’t understand, and therefore resent the idea that their activities might be curtailed by the ignorant.

      *incidentally, this isn’t a left/right issue, but I should have thought librarians would be rather old fashioned in their views on, say, teaching literacy and numeracy.

      1. “It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if engineers tended to be libertarian, though. There is an argument that people with specialist skills do tend to be, since they know they can do things that other people don’t understand, and therefore resent the idea that their activities might be curtailed by the ignorant.”

        Alternatively, knowing that they have a highly marketable skill, they assume that anyone who can’t make a decent living on the open market is just lazy.

  19. “Is a technocratic democracy a healthy one?”
    A late genius has stated many years ago that “Technology can now do anything that can be specified; therefore one does not have to be a technocrat to say what can or cannot be done. It is up to the people (electorate) to start specifying.”

    I specify that our institutions maximise freedom and “make poverty history.”

    The scientific body of knowledge that would make this possible has been developed sinc the 1950’s.

    Both Labour and Conservative governments have been approached in the past warning that our bureaucratic way of doing things does not. And to re-design them so that they do work. But the warnings were ignored; and still are ignored. The political will is not there. Even now.

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