It's not true, but it's good enough for now

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The Independent Online
HERE's a story. Once upon a time there was a British cabinet minister who found a wise witch at the bottom of his garden. He was not doing so well, this minister, and had gone down to his favourite coppice to sob. The witch took pity on him - she was the first Briton to take pity on a cabinet minister for many years - and told him she would grant him two wishes.

The minister asked, as she knew he would, for the gift of political foresight. 'If I knew what was going to happen, I would be able to predict it, take preventive action, and everyone would realise how wise I was,' he said. 'It don't work like that, babe,' said the witch, 'but try it for yourself.'

So the politician did. He realised that unemployment was going to rise to 4 million, and made bold speeches about the radical measures that would be needed. He realised there was about to be a bloodbath in an obscure part of Asia and helped to persuade the United Nations to intervene before it was too late. He knew that John Major was about to lose a crucial vote on the coal- mine closures and offered a concession to the rebels, thus saving the Government.

And . . . Labour accused him of cynically softening the country up for even worse unemployment figures than anyone had believed possible. They called on him to publish the official advice on the basis of which his alarming speech had been made. He was, of course, unable to do so. And . . . his manoeuvres to prevent the Asian bloodbath were regarded as a barefaced attempt to lobby for the Foreign Secretary's job. And . . . Mr Major received his news about the pre-vote concession with a frosty stare: it proved the minister was in close touch with the rebels, or lacked the guts for a confrontation, or both.

The minister, hated by the Opposition, distrusted in Cabinet, and regarded as a potential traitor by the Prime Minister, was brutally sacked in a summer reshuffle. He crept back to the coppice, sobbing his heart out once more. 'Bloody country,' he said. 'They only reward timidity and humbug.'

'Second wish?' said the witch. He asked her for a few non-executive directorships, and she replied: 'Now you're talking.'

End of fairy story. It was merely an attempt to express a political truth that is hard to pin down, but seems worth discussing, even so. It is that political rewards accrue for saying and doing the right thing for the time, even if it is the wrong thing in the long term. In a recession, sunny optimism always seems heartless and stupid, even if a politician knows perfectly well that a strong recovery is likely. Environmentalism, as the French Greens have discovered, goes out of fashion. MPs can bang on about the inflation to come, but we will shut our ears. Nice message, shame about the timing. Norman Lamont's 'taxes deferred' Budget was an interesting example of a politician grappling with the problem.

Nor is this only a recessionary phenomenon. When the recovery arrives, the politician who rightly warns about the dangerous smallness of our manufacturing base will be ignored or derided: that was the right thing to say when times were tough, but not now. Similarly, would Labour strictures about Christian morality have gone down well in the middle of the consumer boom? Or would they have sounded unacceptably anti-fun?

Nor are there any prizes for taking avoiding action. Frankly, nobody cares about the things politicians avert. We don't know about the 450 British soldiers who were not killed in Sarajevo last month, because Douglas Hurd didn't send them to fight there. So we concentrate, rightly, on the thousands of wretched Bosnians whose lives might have been saved by Western military intervention, but who died because no Britons did.

To succeed, it seems, the politician must go with the flow. Timing is everything and there are no timeless truths. Sometimes, admittedly, the politician who struggles against the current is swept to power and glory because of the speed and drama with which he is proved right. Winston Churchill's rearmament campaign is the obvious domestic example. Nor does the rule hold good for the Dennis Skinners and Norman Tebbits of the world, whose reputations rely on their integrity. They, though, tend to be relegated to the wings of action, to be admired from afar, like classical statues of virtue, attractive in their own way, but rather cold and useless.

Still, the 'timing is all' principle seems to work often enough for it to matter. Be Thatcherite in the Eighties, caring in the Nineties, and rise effortlessly. Do it the other way round, and sink. Grammar schools are evil. Grammar schools are our only hope. Proclaim socialism. Bury it. Afterwards, in your memoirs, you can sink the inconvenient bits, obliterate the wrongly chosen paths and smooth everything with a comforting coat of retrospective consistency. And, amazingly, most people will take you at your own estimation.

The principle affects personalities as well as the words they utter. Whatever he did, Mr Lamont was always going to be an unconvincing recessionary Chancellor: his face is the wrong shape and he is too cheerily social. Conversely, John Smith is an excellent recessionary politician, sober in his public demeanour to the point of grimness. How well he does in better times remains to be seen.

This 'timing is all' law is clearly a bad one. It militates against politicians sustaining any policy long enough for it to work. Education is an example of a policy area that has been battered by fashion. The law also makes a counter-cyclical or Keynesian approach to investment and taxation much more difficult. Politicians cannot worry about inflation or unemployment when they could do most to ameliorate them: they are obliged to wait until it is too late. In general, the law rewards short-term panic and penalises long-term thinking.

Recently Mr Hurd made a thoughtful speech attacking the heavy newspapers, such as this one, for a mood of excessive carping criticism of the 'doers' in society. But the real problem with the political culture, which infects newspapers just as seriously as it does politicians, is our short concentration span.

Almost everyone involved in the culture, whether as daily imbibers of the latest political intelligence, or purveyors or makers of it, is a slave to the 'issue of the day'. Yet if an issue is worth talking about at all, it cannot be 'of the day'. We are too slow to dig back and grub around the statistics, and too quick to forget what was said a few years, or indeed weeks, before. Much of this is the inevitable result of

a lightning-fast, minute-by- minute, news-driven culture. But we must start to recognise the news continuum as a political problem, rather than the pure and unbiased medium in which problems are discussed and dealt with. Unlike the witch, I can offer no magic solution. But unlike the politician, I can say, mea culpa.