The Greens want out. Labour wants out, but not yet. And the prime minister’s party did want to get troops out of Afghanistan, but now that they’re in government they’re not sure. Now that they’re in government, and particularly now that the prime minister has been to Afghanistan, and met the soldiers who risk their lives, they can see that there are arguments both ways.
The prime minister, it’s true, looks quite a lot better than ours does in crisp shirts, and nice shoes, and suits. But the prime minister, in the new series of the Danish TV drama Borgen, which started on Saturday, is learning, as our Prime Minister is learning, what it’s like to be in power. She’s learning that you can think one thing is a good idea, and then think, when you know a bit more about it, that maybe it isn’t.
The prime minister, who’s called Birgitte Nyborg, is learning, for example, that you can think a war is “senseless”, because it’s taking place in a country where no one ever wins wars, and that young men are dying for a lost cause. You can think this, but then you can talk to an Afghan woman who can now work, and drive, and do things without having to ask the permission of a man, who tells you that she can only do this because your soldiers have fought, and died. And you can hear a father read the “farewell letter” of his soldier son, which says that 89,000 children who would have died under the Taliban are now alive.
She’s learning, in other words, that when you’re making decisions that have a very big effect on people’s lives, and ones which may even mean that people die, you need to listen to other people’s points of view. You can’t go on listening for ever, because you can’t be in government and not make decisions, but you can’t just tell everyone else that you’re right, and they’re wrong.
And she’s learning that when you’re running a country with other political parties, because your party didn’t get enough votes to run it on its own, you have to do things you don’t want to do. You have to give jobs to people from other parties, when you’d rather give them to people in your own party, and you have to make changes to some policies, even though you liked them as they were.
It isn’t, it’s true, all that easy to imagine her standing behind a podium and saying that the relationship she had with her coalition partners was “a Ronseal deal”, which does “what it says on the tin”. But it isn’t difficult to imagine her saying, as our Prime Minister said on Monday, at a press conference meant to mark the “mid-term” of the Coalition, that “we can have arguments and still get the job done”.
She might not have added, as our Prime Minister added, that her partnership with her coalition partners was “a serious commitment” to give her country the “strong, stable” leadership it needed. But she probably wouldn’t have needed to. In Denmark, and Sweden, and Norway, and Australia, and France, and Germany, and lots of other countries around the world, coalitions are common. In those countries, journalists at press conferences don’t think the most important thing is whether the party leaders look as though they’re in a happy marriage. They don’t think that it’s exciting to write about the “differences” that might come up between the different parties. They think that “differences” between people in different parties, and even between people in the same party, are what you’d probably expect.
And they are. If you take a complicated problem, like a war in a country that probably shouldn’t have been started, but which has been started, or the need to tackle a massive deficit without killing off all growth, or the need to cut welfare bills in ways that seem fair to people who don’t work, and to people in low-paid work, and to people in high-paid work, and you ask some bright people to come up with some answers, it would be very strange if all the answers were the same.
If they were all the same, it would make you think that someone else had told them what to say. But so many people in politics do seem to speak as if someone else has told them what to say. They speak as if the thing they’re saying is the answer is the only possible answer. They speak as if they have joined a tribe, or even a cult. When they’re in that tribe, they seem to think that you have to believe exactly the same things as everyone else in that tribe. You can’t, for example, say that you agree with one tribe about one thing, and with another tribe about something else. You might quite like to, but you have to be careful not to offend the “activists” and party members, and backbenchers, and funders, who hardly ever seem to change their minds about anything at all.
This is the system we have chosen to run our country, and it’s better, as Churchill pointed out, than the others that have been tried. If you want to run the country, you have to join a party. You have to be selected by other members of that party, and you have to give the impression that there aren’t any big “differences” in what you and they believe. If you can do it, great. If you can do it, and still keep your brain, and still listen to other points of view, and still sometimes change your mind (but it’s probably better to do this before you announce your policies), even better. Politics needs people who will try hard, with big brains.
But if we want more good people to get involved, more people who didn’t all study politics before becoming “special advisers”, more people, in fact, like the Prime Minister in Borgen, we’ll need our politicians to give more of a sense of the thought that goes into the decisions they have to make, and of the compromises that have to be made. We’ll need them, in other words, to stop pretending that their tribe has all the answers, and that the other tribes are stupid and wrong.
Most people don’t care about political tribes. They don’t care who’s “in” and who’s “out”. They don’t care about “differences” between coalition members, or cabinet members, or party members. They don’t even care all that much whether one party wins. What they care about is whether the people running the country are doing their jobs well. Most people know that making decisions that affect other people’s lives is a very difficult thing to do, and have much more respect for the people who admit it’s a difficult thing to do than for the people – in politics and out of it – who seem to think it’s just a game.