Naivety is a failing we could do with more of in politics - and it seems to be making something of a comeback

It’s a charge hurled at politicians and ‘do-gooders’ alike, but sometimes it’s the fools who see things most clearly

Dj Taylor
Saturday 28 November 2015 20:52
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Britain's shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell quoting from Mao's Little Red Book
Britain's shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell quoting from Mao's Little Red Book

Some years ago, in a moment of craft solidarity, I enquired of the distinguished novelist A S Byatt how an event she was booked to take part in had gone. It turned out that Dame Antonia, as she has since become, had not enjoyed herself. In particular, she complained of a young male novelist on the panel who, when the talk turned to the circumstances of the Second World War, demanded of the audience – at least some of whose members might have been alive during the period 1939-45 – “How could you have let this happen?” Given the number of wars that have been waged as the result of a democratic plebiscite, this, we both agreed, was a rather naive thing to say on a public platform.

I remembered this conversation the other day when sifting through media coverage of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, and in particular reactions to the role played in it by John McDonnell. The shadow Chancellor, it may be remembered, brought an unexpected note of drama to his response to George Osborne’s proposals by quoting from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book – the accumulated wisdom of a communist tyrant who, historians were quick to confirm, was responsible for the deaths of something near 70 million people. Fellow Labour MPs were aghast and even non government-supporting commentators seemed to agree with the verdict of The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman that this was “a fundamentally naive move”.

But then naivety – here defined as lack of sophistication bordering on artlessness, or in political terms the idea that solutions to certain problems are not quite as complicated as they seem – would appear to be making something of a come-back. Jeremy Corbyn, naturally, is forever being charged with it, although casual observers might think that much of his previous career has been characterised by a steely circumspection. His party, which waved through a rule-change allowing thousands of non-members to vote for a leader disparaged by nine out of 10 of his parliamentarians, is assumed to be riven with it. Beyond Westminster, Lord Coe, who seems to believe that his Nike sponsorship does not conflict with his role at the head of world athletics, has been widely proclaimed as its latest high-profile victim.

This, of course, assumes that Lord Coe is being genuinely naive rather than disingenuous – a condition with which naivety is frequently confused by what can only be, dare I say it, naive people. Yet, curiously enough, recent British political history comes crammed with examples of politicians who, however affaire or straightforwardly duplicitous in their dealings around the cabinet table, could be guileless when it came to the world beyond. Back in 1973, for example, when the then Viscount Lambton was sacked from Edward Heath’s government for being photographed in flagrante with a prostitute, Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have asked a male colleague “Do men really pay women for that kind of thing?” In the same way that Mr McDonnell seems not to have understood that quoting the words of a long-dead communist despot in response to a financial statement might be anathema to 95 per cent of his listeners, so Mrs Thatcher, despite her cabinet minister status, seemed bemused by the revelation that one of her parliamentary colleagues enjoyed paying for sex.

It is easy to smile at this kind of puzzled detachment from reality, while thinking that a great many of the things routinely described as “naive” – the opinions held by the anti-climate change marchers gathering in London this morning, say – have rather a lot to be said for them. The same applied to the alleged naivety of ordinary people. Why should we all be expected to be au fait with every aspect of the increasingly complex world in which we are obliged to operate, and why should we assume that, to quote the lyrics of that old Who song “Substitute”, the simple things we see are all complicated? What about if, as often happens, some of the complexity turns out to be imposed from on high?

Coincidentally, these questions could be dimly discerned in last Wednesday’s excellent Radio 3 Free Thinking debate, which turned on the place of alcohol in our national life. Here, amid a stack of jaw-dropping statistics about dependence, the presenter, Philip Dodd, invited his guests to consider whether it was possible to reach a satisfactory half-way point between the pain and pleasure that booze afforded or was the only solution a cultural shift away from the demon drink. Although the addiction specialist and the reformed drunk on the panel had valuable things to say, the most telling contribution came from the Muslim activist Shelina Janmohamed, who had never taken drink and was bewildered by the pervasiveness of the culture that surrounded it.

And how should the country go about reducing the extent of alcohol-related illness while making the average Saturday-night town centre a place of decorum and safety? Easy, the non-drinker will argue – inflate the price to a minimum of £1 a unit, encourage city councils to refuse licences to night clubs, and underwrite their costs when frustrated licensees appeal through the courts – only to be told, by both the libertarian (and, of course, the drinks industry) that this is “naive”. Not only, you see, does it inhibit the individual’s freedom to get wasted, but upping the price encourages everything from bath-tub gin to smuggling. People will always drink, and however much you try to discourage them, they will find a way.

The same arguments wing back and forth in the eternally contested field of road safety. How best to minimise casualties? Well, why not ban for life any motorist convicted of drunk driving or using a mobile phone, prohibit car ownership to anyone under the age of 25 and introduce a national speed limit of 30mph? Each of these measures would doubtless have a salutary effect, and yet the consequences, in terms of both personal freedom and logistical efficiency, would be so dire that nobody would put up with them. There is, in fact, an unspoken public agreement that the 1,175 people who died in, or beneath, motorised vehicles in 2014 are the price we have to pay for the wonderful consumer-materialist 24/7 world we inhabit.

Oddly enough, my own sympathies in these debates are with Ms Janmohamed and her kind. After all, to the fifth of the adult population who get by without alcohol the world of the drunken Saturday-night reveller or the raptly televised Ibiza weekender is an assault on their own liberties. Why should they have to put up with it? Which is perhaps a way of saying that nearly every attempt at social reform is to some extent “naive” as it presupposes that vested interests (the drinks industry, car manufacturers, Jeremy Clarkson) can ultimately be overthrown and individual consciences be persuaded to change tack.

Doubtless Lord Shaftesbury was thought “naive” by the early 19th-century mill-owners. In his essay on that other Victorian social game-changer, Charles Dickens, George Orwell noted that the message of Dickens’s novels can be boiled down into a few words – that we should behave better. No doubt about it, Dickens was, in his way, as naive as Mrs Thatcher in the presence of a call-girl scandal, but there are times when sophistication has its limits. The second volume of Charles Moore’s life of Mrs T reminds us of the Rekjavik summit of 1986. Here, after several hours’ testy discussions about weapons trade-offs, a frustrated Ronald Reagan dropped an unscripted remark to the effect that none of the foregoing would matter “if we eliminate all nuclear weapons”. This, too, was naïve by the standards of international power politics. On the other hand, Mikhael Gorbachev instantly replied “We can do that”.

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