Britain and the world face a bewildering set of challenges for 2014. And yet so many of these critical issues are presented in ridiculously simplistic and dogmatic terms. If we are left wing, we must say and believe and do “this”. If we are right-wing we must say and believe and do “that”. Issues are polarised at birth and the facts are distorted to suit. Actions are taken on the back of emotive reactions and political dogma. And the casualties are truth, logic and – ultimately – people’s lives.
So, for example, with the relaxation of EU border controls thousands of Bulgarians and Romanians will “come over here, take our jobs and sponge off our benefits system”. This is clearly a very bad thing. So, not only must we stereotype “these people” (and not in a good way), we must urgently and radically change the system to protect ourselves.
Before we know it , we find ourselves at the thin end of a xenophobia wedge. Fear and self-interest combine with right-wing politics to whip up a fury, with scant regard for the complexities and realities of the actual challenges. Immigration and border-control are difficult issues. Striking a sensible balance between a number of economic, political and human principles and practicalities is hard and requires rigorous analysis, grown-up debate and well-informed solutions. Throwing simplistic stones from either end of the spectrum does the matter – and all those affected by it – no favours at all.
Pick any other political field – crime, education, the economy, the welfare system, the NHS, human rights, climate change. Daily Mail or Guardian readers can give you a pre-programmed position on each of these in 5 seconds. We have decided what we think – don’t bother me with detailed facts and involved arguments. Subtle shades of grey are represented as black and white. The answer is bright red or blue – or maybe green. There is certainly no room for any blend of pastel colours. The protagonists take up their positions before the debate is opened. I am right/left-wing – toss me another issue to solve from my neatly constructed and pre-arranged world-viewpoint.
And then the debate becomes like a boxing match. Who can hit who above or below the belt, score points, whip up the crowd? There is no possibility of an honest, thoughtful discussion where one side may actually listen to the other and change their opinion accordingly. Perish the thought. Perish the sensible answer.
This political Punch and Judy show is played out on Radio 4 every morning in the guise of political debate. James Naughtie – or whoever – corners and bullies some hapless politician in order to make them say something incriminating. One imagines the various journalists have some sort of scoreboard in their equivalent of a staffroom. A gold star is awarded for making an interviewee say something they will regret. This victory is then amplified in the same organization’s 9am news bulletin. “On this programme, Ed Milliband said that he was going to walk around with his trousers down in the build up to the next general election”
A silver star is awarded for making the politician lose his or her cool and get angry or defensive. A bronze star is won for making him or her report the same bland and evasive answer repeatedly. Bonus points are awarded if he or she attempts to bounce off the ropes by saying ‘if I may just answer . . ‘ – following a barrage of interruptions by the so-called interviewer. Such interruptions entirely justified, of course, if the beleaguered politician has not yet provided the correct answer written on the interrogator’s card.
They call this probing journalism, and yet it does nothing to advance the intelligent grown-up debate of real issues. This is relatively harmless sport on Radio 4 or on Newsnight. But when it is repeated in the House of Commons, it leads to policies born out of defensiveness, dogma, intransigence and self-protection. Hardly the way to run a small business, never mind a whole country.
So let’s get grown-up. Let’s have proper, informed, intelligent debate. Let’s allow politicians to – shock, horror – change their minds. This is a strength not a weakness. By all means challenge them – but let’s do so not to score political points or to provoke embarrassing reactions (Gordon Brown, John Prescott…). Let’s do it to sharpen up the argument and provide better answers to the enormous complexities and challenges which face the country and the world in 2014.