Saturday, 31 March 2012

Natural Selection

I think I've worked out what the problem is with our political system.  I'm sure you all worked it out years ago, but bear with me.

Darwin provides the explanation, as he does for most systems.  As you know, his thesis was that natural processes of selection weed out those that are unsuitable for a particular environment leaving behind those that are suited.  They can then reproduce successfully and, over time, you develop a population that is matched perfectly to the environment.  So, if you want to change the nature of the population, it is pointless trying to change the population that is living in it so successfully, you need to change the environment around them.  Care is needed, though (normally), as a dramatic change may wipe out the population leaving nothing to repopulate it from.

Equally, if you want to understand the nature of the population, and gain some insight into why it is the way that it is, you need to look at the environmental pressures that it faces.  Assuming that the population is mature, you can then infer that the population is the way that is it in order to survive in that environment.

Applying this to the British political class, we then face the obvious question of what is their environment?  From where do they obtain their shelter and support?  The answer to that one is quite simple - the media.  So, what sort of media do we have?  Taking the Today programme as an example (it being the only one I don't do very well at escaping), we have a series of questioners whose only aim is to trap a politician into saying something embarrassing or admitting that they don't know what they are talking about.  John Humphreys et al have never given me the slightest impression that they are trying to elucidate useful information about a subject of interest to their listeners; they just want to be The One Who Humiliated That Politician.  They want their "Did you threaten to overrule him" moment.

So what type of politician could we reasonably expect to result from that kind of environment?  Simple - the type who simply will not answer any question with any kind of information that might ever be used against them in future.  Or, to put it more simply, not with any kind of information at all.  The kind of answer that is evasive, an answer to a different question to the one that was asked.  A non-answer, in other words.  OscarIndia spotted it last week on Question Time -
politicians can’t get away with saying anything about anything any more
Now, we usually castigate them for this, but perhaps we should be more understanding if, as it now seems to me, that this is merely a rational response to the environment in which they find themselves.  After all, the system which we use for politics has selected that kind of politician; any politician that is "different" gets castigated and, eventually, ejected.  Vide Gorgeous George, Boris, Edwina Currie and so on - the kind of politician who speaks out, speaks up, debates, responds, gets into hot water, is often pilloried, and eventually gets thrown out or resigns.  (Yes, I know Boris is currently mayor, but this is despite the controversies which merit an entire section in Wikipedia).  So we are left, by and large, with the ones who are spineless opinionless grinning idiots.

So why is the media the way it is?  Again, that is quite simple.  Look who they have to deal with - the politicians.  If you were tasked with interviewing someone who you knew was going to avoid every question and purge all their answers of anything controversial or informative, you'd adopt the same hectoring interrogative tone of Humphreys, Paxman, and so on.  You'd interrupt them when they start rambling on with an endless stream of meaningless vacuous drivel.  You'd try to trip them up.  What's more, you'd make it less likely that any future politico will ever give an informative answer to any question you ever ask.

So there we are - a symbiotic relationship.  Our short-sighted soundbite-obsessed media are responsible for our short-sighted soundbite-obsessed politicians, and vice versa.

It's clear to see - just look at recent events.  An economically sensible move is made - to reduce the top rate of tax to below the Laffer limit.  At the same time, another economically sensible move is made, to place older taxpayers on the same basis as others by eliminating a minor imbalance.  Cue instant uproar over a "Granny tax" because Osborne has made the (idiotic) error of doing both at the same time.  All caused by a small slip in presentation.

Or the fuel scare debacle - which could have been defused quickly if Ministers had appeared to say that Francis Maude had made a stupid error because stockpiling fuel is dangerous, stupid and unnecessary.  Can you imagine the media scrum if they had, though?  Or if Maude had re-appeared saying "Good lord no, I didn't mean that, sorry to have put it across so ineptly".  We all knew he had, though, but every politician being interviewed has to avoid saying anything so clear, simple and straightforward so ends up reinforcing the error.

Or the "pasty tax" (oh, really...).  A trivial inconsistency in the list of VAT-exempted products is tidied up and it is front page news.  No, the newsworthy issues are that VAT is so high and that there is an external undemocratic body who set an arbitrary floor beneath which we may not reduce it.  Whether or not a warm, high-fat snack falls on or off the exempted list is neither here nor there, but is made up to be something significant.

So where do we go from here?  I'll admit, that's the hard bit.  There's the obvious option of lining up the entire political and media class of the country and opening fire, but that approach has been tested to destruction in other countries, without much by way of success.  We can discount that, I think.

We should certainly avoid media outlets that trivialise issues and focus on the irrelevant - the Guardian, the Murdoch press, all the tabloids, the Mail (oh, heavens, yes, the Mail) and all of the BBC news output will do for a start.

We should get politicians on Twitter, using it properly and personally.  Not like the No.10 twitter feed, or the car-crash that was #AskEdM, but tweeting personally and listening to others' tweets.  Politicians should have blogs, all of them; the media is half of the problem, so politicians must find ways round the media.

We also need to close down the organised crime syndicate known as News International.  Sorry Rupert, but you company has proved to be engaged in criminal activity in every sector of it that we have looked in.  It's time to stop looking at the company and start closing the company.

None of this is enough though.  We also need some intelligent, plain-speaking, brave people to become politicians in order to challenge the media, break the cycle and be the change.

Off you all go, then.


  1. This analysis isn't quite correct, because politicians are not simply animals in an environment. Like human beings, they have evolved to be able to control - at least in part - their environment, to make sure they do not become unsuited to their environment.

    On a straight forward Darwinian analysis, the environment would be the electorate. A party or politician that fails to "fit" that environment should expect to find themselves losing out in the survival stakes.

    But politicians have fixed things so that the environment is not the electorate, but the other political parties. From Europe, to gay marriage, to mass immigration - to mention only three, the parties are in agreement, and so politicians are hermetically sealed from the effects of the electorate environment. So they can change the very character of our nation (for better or worse) without being affected by the environment of the nation as a whole.

    This situation will persist until people stop simply deciding between the three parties. I suppose it's even possible Gorgeous George is a shining light of political evolution. A new hope for democracy? Does he know Richard Dawkins by any chance?

  2. We're in deep if George is the next evolutionary step for politicians :(