“How can we get truth back to the centre of public debate?”
Rt Hon Charles Clarke speaking in Worcester Cathedral
November 21st 2017
This evening I intend to address the ways in which politics, the media and academic life have to change in order to contest the so-called ’post-truth’ politics which is increasingly threatening our democratic political culture, and to put facts and proper analysis at the centre of public discourse where they should be. We need profound change in the ways in which our politics operates and I identify three aspects in particular.
First we need a democratic political method that is capable of focusing upon long-term problems in a long-term way. Many of the problems we face – for example climate change, immigration, welfare reform, NHS funding - require consistent and coherent action over a number of years and during a number of governments. Short-term fixes will not do and, as I argued in my book, the ‘Too Difficult Box, which I published a couple of years ago, it is necessary to create a culture in which politicians face up to, and hopefully address, the problems that of course exist in our society.
Second we need to place rational argument and open debate at the centre of our discussions. It does exist, indeed more than many people suspect, but it is constantly threatened by electoral timetables, short-term point-scoring and by the elevation of personality, conflict and abuse.
And third our politics has to be conducted in a way which establishes the legitimacy of the relationship between the people and the politicians whom they elect. The role of the political party needs to be recast to allow an easier, more direct relationship between people and politicians.
(1) Long-term thinking
I begin with the need for long-term thinking and strategy, which is very difficult.
Many devices have been tried to develop long-term approaches that command confidence across political parties.
Royal Commissions were commonly used to try and assemble expertise of such quality that it was hoped that the political parties would be forced by weight of argument to implement their recommendations. However in practice their record has been extremely patchy. They were often used as devices to kick political controversies into long grass. Politicians could purport to be seeking rational solutions whilst actually getting the matter entirely off the political agenda, during their time at least.
A different model is the Public Enquiry, Judicial Review or similar, usually used when judicial powers are thought necessary to identify responsibility for past failures, then making recommendations for the future.
Sometimes these approaches are used specifically to get round the inconvenience of General Elections. For example in the politically controversial field of higher education, committees led by Ron Dearing (1996-7) and then John Browne (2009-10) were used, broadly successfully, for just that purpose.
Various similar efforts at long-term thinking have been set up by organizations completely independent of government, only to find their efforts, often the product of immense time, energy and expertise, rebuffed by government almost at the point of publication of their report, with a lot of concomitant bad feeling. Recent examples are the Runciman Report (2000) on drugs and the law, and the Cambridge Primary Review (2009).
Sometimes these Commissions, Enquiries and Reviews lose impact and effectiveness simply because they take a very long time to report – Saville and Chilcott are good examples; sometimes their terms of reference are too vaguely framed or they are chaired indecisively; sometimes they suffer from the ‘committee disease’ of seeking agreement through woolly wording, so avoiding the really hard choices which often confront government; sometimes they deliberately ignore, or even express contempt towards, the public opinion which is the sea in which politicians inevitably swim.
Despite this there are occasional positive examples. Probably the most successful recently has been the Leveson Enquiry (2011/12) investigating the role of the press in the phone-hacking scandal. This made substantive recommendations and changed the climate of opinion, though only a limited amount of real change has taken place. But this type of approach to building long-term thinking does not generally have a good track record except, just possibly, in shifting public opinion a little.
A different approach has been the occasional efforts to transform the political party system. Ending short-term opportunism and establishing long-term thinking has always been the rhetoric of centrist political parties and it found its expression in the foundation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, with its meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall. There are echoes of the desire for that now. An even more spectacular, though ridiculous, failed effort to take the politics out of government was Cecil King (the boss of the ‘Daily Mirror’)’s attempted coup in 1968 against Harold Wilson and in favour of Earl Mountbatten.
In their different ways, from the highly rational to the patently lunatic, none of these attempts to create long-term stable approaches provide any kind of model for what needs to be done. The fact is that leading politicians from the main political parties need to be directly involved. They cannot be by-passed.
It is much more difficult to find examples of political parties engaging in substantive efforts to talk to each other to try and find long-term solutions though there have been efforts at direct contact.
For example Speaker’s Conferences, involving senior MPs, have taken place on constitutional and parliamentary matters though with no great success in modern times. The Scottish Constitutional Convention did bring together politicians of most political parties, together with other representative organizations, and did lay the basis for a Scottish devolution settlement which has been generally accepted – though, significantly, by the main political force which did not fully participate in the Convention, the Scottish Nationalists. Gordon Brown is now arguing for a similar type of constitutional convention at a UK level.
There have also been short-term efforts around particular legislation. For example I tried in 2006 to secure all-party agreement on handling counter-terrorism legislation but this fell foul of the Conservative leadership election between David Davis and David Cameron. There were unsuccessful efforts, most recently led by Hayden Phillips, to get the main political parties to agree a system of regulating and funding them. Other areas where there might have been agreement, such as student fees in higher education, identity cards, dealing with parliamentary pay and expenses, and reducing the number of MPs were scuppered by the short-term political considerations of both opposition and government.
It should be noted in passing that many MPs of all parties, and political commentators, are very wary of proceeding on a basis of political consensus. They often cite the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as an illustration of poor legislation based on consensus. I suspect that such distaste for consensus reflects the difficulty and compromise involved in achieving it.
A different case was the secret discussions in 2002 - in which I participated - in a room at County Hall in London, between elements of the leadership of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, encouraged by their Leaders, to see what the basis for common policy ground might be. The fact that the discussions were secret explains the problem – there were important parts of both parties who wanted nothing to do with any kind of jointly agreed approach.
Of course parliamentary arithmetic can force such discussions on a short-term basis, as in the 1974-79 Parliament, after Labour lost its majority. The most substantial political discussions of this type in recent years were those between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and also between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, in May 2010 after the inconclusive General Election. Unlike any of the other discussions, they were assisted by the civil service, with their policy analysis and, to an extent, advocacy of agreement. Of course these discussions were impelled by the need to find a stable government which is what led to the discussions between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party earlier this year.
But, overall, since 1945 the UK has seen few examples of successful political co-operations, outside the security and foreign policy fields, and increasingly less so there. Of course during the war there was a coalition government of all the main parties which not only provided the basis to win the war, but laid the foundations for a successful peacetime government.
The conclusion that I draw from this brief survey is that attempts to bring long-term thinking and action to bear on significant questions will not succeed unless they directly engage the political leaderships of the main UK political parties. Other processes are unlikely to work.
The question which then arises is what changes we could make to encourage such efforts at long-term agreement. Unfortunately there is no quick fix or silver bullet, and some political leaders are so partisan and tribal that no institutional arrangements would be likely to make any difference.
That said, two steps would help.
First is agreement by the party leaders that an issue (or number of issues) would benefit from a non-partisan long-term approach. There was an element of this in the cross-party support for the Millennium Projects and the 2012 Olympic Games. Some areas of reform, for example social care, are rather more significant and would greatly benefit from such an agreement. Had such an approach been taken to BREXIT the whole process might have had a chance of success rather than the likely failure I now expect.
Second, where such subjects have been identified, a small group should be established to agree proposals and strategies. should include authoritative representatives of the main political parties, be supported by the civil service and engage, as appropriate, representative bodies and high quality expertise. It should involve the Treasury directly if, as in almost all cases, there are financial implications. The group would need to be well chaired.
This process would need to be public and preferably widely debated, but also brief and business-like.
One other step which might help the climate for such an approach would be the establishment of a regular process for the opposition parties to meet and be briefed by the civil service, rather like what now happens before general elections in a rather unsatisfactory way.
Of course moves in the direction I describe would mean that the structures of our party politics, inevitably adversarial in nature, would need to move away from short-term point-scoring and stance- striking and towards what I consider to be the true role of politics, exploring how solutions to our difficulties can be constructed.
All sides would gain politically from being involved in such a process. People want to see their political leaders trying to sort out the problems that we all face, and they are contemptuous of, even if entertained by, political games and trickery.
And most important I believe that general respect for politics and politicians would increase as people could see their efforts to address the major problems of the time in an open and constructive way.
(2) Elevating the place of rational debate
The second respect in which change is essential is to elevate the role of rational debate in discussion of these long-term issues. There are many ways in which political obstacles cause politicians to put these issues into the Too Difficult Box. The most effective counter is powerful and public rational argument and the support and active engagement of significant sections of public opinion, impatient with the failure to make necessary changes.
That in turn means that debate about these issues needs to be fuller, more comprehensive and more considered. The types of media coverage and partisan ‘blog war’ which have marred public consideration of many of these matters needs to be replaced by a more considered and balanced framework for discussion.
Better approaches in the worlds of academia, the media and politics would help improve debate. They cannot be mandated but they ought to be part of the ethics of these professions.
The academic world is important for this. Research and scholarship are not simply dry scholastic pursuits. They are the core means of understanding our world as it was, is and will be. The public and private investment in universities is testimony to the widespread recognition of the importance for all of us of this role and of our commitment to seeing it done well.
All of these subjects will of course be the cause of argument, dispute and dialectic. This is as it should be. In their different ways hundreds of great scientists, like Galileo and Keynes, have demonstrated the importance of having the courage to stand out against an established, but wrong, groupthink consensus.
Science certainly reaches conclusions which are ‘relevant’ to the development of our society and that is part of the contribution of the academic world.
Precisely because of its social importance it is essential that academic research everywhere is ready to engage in the public debate, to address the real choices faced by government and others and to be ready to submit its work not only to the peer review of fellow academics but to the rather less rigorous, but perhaps more challenging, review by the media, politics and public opinion. The academic community has to be brave in presenting and defending its research to the wider world.
Unfortunately the mutual respect of policy-makers and researchers is not as great as it should be despite the general agreement that research and knowledge should be an important component of policy-making and politics.
The discussion between policy-makers and academics often seems to be a dialogue of the deaf. Politicians appear not to be listening to the research which has been done, whilst they see themselves as having difficulty getting answers to the questions which preoccupy them in the practical decisions they take.
Sometimes it’s because the timescales don’t synchronize; at other times it’s because of the tension between academic freedom and independence and the way in which research is commissioned.
If policy and political debate is to be properly informed these tensions have to be resolved and the academic world needs to play a greater part in informing the public debates of the country particularly in relation to the types of long-term challenge which are so important.
Academic research, and engagement in public debate, should be an important part of long-term governmental and political decision-making and the dialogue necessary to make that happen needs to be encouraged.
The media has a responsibility to acknowledge the role that they play in framing and influencing the public debate.
Much media power is entirely legitimate. The contest of opinions, analyses and polemics – sometimes unfair though they may seem - is as central to any mature democracy as the ability of a free media to expose and publicize corruption, wrong-doing or plain incompetence. Often only unremitting media pressure exposes serious incompetence or malpractice.
But the very existence of that media power means that the media are not simply chroniclers of events, they are themselves actors, often very important actors, however much some in the media attempt to escape the power which they hold by claiming that they only reflect society, they just observe and record. They should therefore behave in a way which takes account of the influence that they do have.
The recent rise of social media poses new challenges. For example the controversy about the influence of Russian social media in both US and UK politics is giving rise to enormous concerns for example with more than 150,000 Russian Twitter accounts sending out messages designed to influence the BREXIT vote, often incorporating completely invented ‘facts’. The influence of social media upon mainstream media is often far greater than it ought to be and a more balanced approach would rightly give less weight to social media afficionados.
Media power has changed Government policy on important matters of substance. I have no doubt that media attitudes and threats have been decisive in influencing British attitudes to the European Union, in inhibiting reform in the criminal justice system, in influencing levels and structures of taxation and of course in influencing policies towards the media itself. In general this media power has focused upon short-term quick fixes, sometimes purely presentational, rather than the kind of long-term and difficult reform which many of our institutions need, in some cases desperately.
Media power has also changed the style of politics. Parliament’s influence has declined, because it is not media-friendly, and cross-questioning on a variety of media outlets has replaced accountability to elected representatives. It some times seems that lying to Parliament has been replaced as a sacking offence by lying to ‘Question Time’ or the Today programme.
And media power has changed personalities in politics. Whenever any individual runs into problems, whether personal or political, major or minor, the game is on as the media pursue their prey. As we have recently seen, many have fallen because at the end of the day the Prime Minister has not been ready or able to resist a media claque.
We need better media analysis of politics and political choices. Despite the few bright spots which do exist, there are all too few media locations where serious discussion takes place, still less discussion which appeals right across the population.
These problems cannot be dealt with through tighter media regulation or better funding. It is about improving the culture of journalism and promoting those elements that certainly exist now, and were historically strong, but now are being sidelined. The far more diverse range of media outlets provides the opportunity for more substantive analysis and political debate. It is that which needs encouragement.
(3) The conduct of politics
But my third theme, the conduct of politics, is where the biggest changes have to come since, at the end of the day, it is democratic politics which has to seize the responsibility of facing the future, and addressing the challenges which our country faces.
It starts with the perception of politics and politicians.
For millions of people politics is not thought about in relation to solving problems at all. It is perceived as all about personality, ambition and political theatre, for example at Prime Minister’s Questions, a real-life reality show. Discussion is dominated by the kind of 'office politics' which you can find in any organization: who's in who's out, who’s doing what to whom.
Politicians themselves – MPs and others – are held in low esteem, justifiably or not. The media are pretty unconstrained in their reduction of politics to the ephemera of life.
And, particularly since the ‘MPs’ expenses scandal’, the depressing perception is that politicians are principally driven by personal ambition and enrichment, even corruption, and not at all by any sense of public service or commitment.
I don’t think that most of these perceptions are true for most politics and for most politicians. But they stick, they erode confidence and they weaken the capacity of democratic politics to address the problems of society.
Some argue that the best way to deal with this is to by-pass Parliament altogether, for example by more referenda, systems of ‘direct democracy’ and even random selection of legislators.
I think that such ideas are exactly the wrong way to go. These approaches promote short-term thinking and do not promote the kinds of open debate which are necessary. Moreover most of these ‘too difficult’ issues have wide implications and do not boil down to a simple Yes/No choice. Of course the EU referendum, of June 2016, is a good case in point.
The current bad state of affairs needs to be addressed by politicians themselves, and the place to start is in the conduct of Parliament itself.
Though there have been significant changes in the last 15 years, Parliamentary practices still seem to many to be rooted in the past, with a focus on outdated form rather than policy substance, on stately exchanges of view, rather than passionate debate and on short-term political competition – for party advantage – rather than consideration of solutions to long-term problems.
These attributes compare with a modern media which has adjusted far better to contemporary debate and often has the capacity to promote debate with more immediacy, even at the cost of such discussions taking place on the media’s own agenda which often bears little resemblance to the real issues.
There are a number of measures that Parliament could take to address its weaknesses.
For example there could be far more free votes in Parliament where the Party whips do not ‘recommend’ the correct vote. This could be done on a far wider range of issues, even on mainstream legislation, where the outcomes are not essential for the government. MPs could be encouraged to test their constituents’ opinion, by a variety of means, before voting. This would reduce set piece parliamentary conflicts and foster more collaborative decision-taking. Some of the ‘too difficult’ issues – for example legislation on drug abuse - would be very well suited for this kind of ‘free vote’ approach.
Parliamentary Select Committees could work better with parts of the media to structure and promote discussion and debate about the kinds of long-term challenge which society faces.
The establishment of Parliamentary Select Committees in the English regions, reflecting voting for the party in the region rather than the national vote split, would hold local public services to greater account and debate matters of particular regional concern.
The introduction of the Alternative Vote system of electing MPs (putting candidates in order 1,2,3… rather than putting an X against one candidates) would reduce significantly the number of ‘safe seats’ whose outcome is a foregone conclusion and so reduce the justified perception that tens of millions of votes are irrelevant and wasted.
We should follow the Australian example and make voting compulsory. Even if that is seen as a step too far a great deal can be done to ensure that more people are on the electoral register, and so entitled to vote, better informed and more engaged. And a number of steps could be taken to increase voter participation, for example by updating electoral rolls and voting at weekends.
And of course elections have to be fairly conducted, which is why I believe that the Labour government was right to establish the Electoral Commission and why I welcome their decision to investigate carefully the funding of the Leave side of the EU referendum campaign.
These measures are not of themselves dramatic but each of them would push individual MPs to have more contact with their constituents, decrease the influence of the political party whips, encourage public engagement in political debates and promote Parliamentary debate about issues of direct concerns to the people.
But the most important change of all would be for the political parties to agree a number of policy areas where they would, publicly and openly, work together to find common, long-term solutions, rather than fighting each other for short-term political advantage. I have addressed this above, but it means positively seeking out areas where cross party work can take place to find common understandings of what needs to be done.
That is the only way in which politics will be able to face up to the long-term problems of the type I have described. Politics has to see its role as a long-term provider of solutions rather than a short-term scorer of political points, however entertaining that might be.
Politicians in both government and opposition need to show strong political courage and leadership. They need to articulate what they know – that tough problems need to be addressed and that might mean losing popularity in the short-term.
This means less of the Punch-and-Judy knockabout or the Just William-style partisan gang warfare. We should try to limit conflict to the areas where there genuinely are fundamental differences of philosophy, belief, policy and approach.
It means ceding less ground to the insular antediluvian reactionaries who oppose most change, particularly if it can in some way be associated with ‘Europe’.
This approach to constructive discussion about the way in which we tackle long-term problems has to be carried through consistently by both government and opposition.
In short politics has to accept that the ‘Too Difficult Box’ must never get too full, and that the problems that can fill it ought to be addressed and solved before they get that far.
That process is the way to begin to restore people’s confidence in politics and to bring truth back to the centre of public debate.