A little geography helps you to steer clear of trouble spots

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The Independent Online
THE CLASSIC explanation of how politicians manage to avoid giving straight answers was provided by Quentin Crisp in his great but little-read survey of human nature entitled How To Have a Lifestyle.

It is called, said Crisp, the China technique, from its application to geography exams. If you are revising for a geography exam, you will, if you are like most students, start going over the material the evening before the exam and quickly realise that you can't hope to cover the whole of your subject before dawn. So instead you must look up an article on one country in your encylopaedia, such as China, and memorise as much as possible about it.

Sure enough, there will be a question in the exam paper, not on China, but on the status of France as a modern industrial nation. So you start your essay answer: 'France is a modern industrial nation, unlike China, which . . .' And then you do your essay on China.

It is an excellent but risky technique in an exam, said Crisp, and most of us grow out of it in adulthood. Only politicians cling to it. Almost every politician alive uses the China technique when facing an interviewer. Whenever a politician says: 'Well, before I answer that, may I just say this?' or 'I think the question we really have to ask ourselves is this . . .' or even 'Well, that's all very well, but what we MUST remember is that . . .' - whenever a politician says anything like that, he or she is really saying: 'I have nothing I can safely say about France, but I have a very good answer on China.'

Of course, it is slightly different with politicians, in that they do know the answer to the question - it is just that they prefer not to give it. If someone points out to a top Tory that John Major has consistently scored lower in the popularity polls than anyone since Richard Cromwell, and then asks why the Tories do not ditch him, you will never get the real answer, which is that the Conservatives want to wait till the Tory party is doing really badly, like after the May elections, before they need a scapegoat to throw to the wolves.

No, what the top Tory will say is either that the party will stick with John Major because he is on course for prosperity or that nobody gives a damn about polls - 'Look how the polls got the results of the last election wrong]' he will chortle.

What the top Tory will not do is answer the question. He would still, even in 1994, rather dig up statistics from the last time Labour was in power. Most politicians, you can tell, have been primed with information on how to steer the conversation round to some cheering topic - that is, how to get from France to China. For all I know, they have gone through three rounds of tough talking with a sparring partner before the big fight . . .

'OK, minister, what if Paxman asks you about the wisdom of British forces getting dragged into a Balkan conflict?'

'I, um, say that we have no intention of getting dragged into one.'

'But our forces are out there. We are about to bomb the Serbs. How can we avoid it?'

'Gosh, I don't know. How do we avoid it?'

'For God's sake, minister, you don't say that. You talk compassion. You soften your voice. You say: 'This is not about fighting - this is all about aid, and getting aid through. We can't stand back and let innocent people die of wounds and starvation]' '

'Gosh, that's clever] . . . That sort of makes it look as if Paxman is in favour of letting people starve, doesn't it?'

'Exactly. But what if Paxman then bounces back and says, 'Yes, but the aid isn't getting through and lots of innocent people are dying'?'

'Oh Lord. Is that true? I don't know what I'd say . . .'

'Oh, for heaven's sake] You say: 'There is only so much we can do in this tragic situation, and although we have achieved a great deal in these appalling conditions, we are only too aware of how much more there is that could be achieved if only other countries made the efforts that we have made.' '

'So we blame it on others?'


'Just as we have always blamed things on the world recession whenever we've cocked up the economy?'

'Very good] You're getting the idea.'

And that is why Paxman and his fellow questioners have now given up all idea of getting any proper answer out of a politician. They have devised a different solution instead.

So what is the solution they have arrived at?

I am very glad you asked me that question. May I just say, first of all, that we will tackle that issue tomorrow?