Last week Channel 4 News broadcast an endearing piece about a quintessentially English gent heading North of the Wall in order to use his quiet decency to convince the Scots to retain the Union because the English need them. Putting aside the issue of whether Jacob Rees-Mogg is any more English because he’s posh (it’d have been just as interesting, I think, to see a less upper-crust rural Somerset resident or an average Mancunian (for instance) heading north to talk about possible independence; all that’s required is a willingness to engage with people and some interest in the topic) I think it was a worthwhile exercise that shed some light on an interesting underlying political issue.
First things first, credit to a JRM (as I’m sure he’ll henceforth be known) for bothering to get on a train and talk some people in streets (or on boats) rather than just pontificating from a studio in London (as he was required to do at the end of the piece). Also, good for him for putting a positive case for retaining the Union from an (and I stress an, not the) English perspective, even if it may have come across as a tad patronising in his hands. I appreciate a politician who’s willing to go out (risking ridicule and, potentially, worse) and ask people for their views on a major issue before explaining the positive reasons for their position without giving it too much of the hard-sell.
Still, there was something more fundamental going on here than a jolly good chap chatting to some salt-of-the-earth Scottish people, which was exposed when JRM returned to London for the video-link head-to-head with SNP MSP Joan McAlpine. Central to her line of argument was that he had opposed devolution from its first proposal until it was proven to have been broadly a success. Further, she pointed out that JRM has since suggested a Conservative alliance with UKIP, a party that has argued for an end to devolution. His motives for proposing such an alliance may have been quite unrelated to the issue of Scottish independence but both of the arguments did their job by undermining viewers’ trust in the old boy.
So, as is often the case in politics, the debate became about who the public should trust rather than, to any great extent, the content of the arguments on either side. This breaks the supposed rule that debates are about the issue not the people but that rule is broken so frequently that it’s almost meaningless. Also, in this instance, I actually think that Joan McAlpine was doing something worthwhile by pointing out that it wasn’t JRM’s first outing opposing power moving from Westminster to Holyrood. To be fair, he did admit that his opposition to devolution was an error of judgement, which is more than some politicians might do. Still, we’re faced with a bit of a conundrum; do we trust the person who’s admitted that they were wrong and made an effort to engage with people to explain their current position, or do we trust the person who’s pointed out that they were wrong about devolution and, arguably, the proposed alliance with UKIP.
This is a pretty fundamental question in politics; how to decide who to trust? Often, trust is an emotional response, a feeling that’s based on a combination of cues that might go back to things we learnt in childhood. One psychological theory argues that we have zero-order beliefs (for instance, that our parents tell us the truth) that are formed at a very early age and underpin other (first-, second-, or higher-order) beliefs that we develop over our lives (such as trusting a particular paper because our parents read it). So, there are plenty of signs given off by politicians that we can associate with our existing beliefs about who is and isn’t trustworthy (e.g. their party, accent, tone, vocabulary, mannerisms, or clothes). Some of these might not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny but they often provide us with quick and easy ways to make decisions that can be just as good as if we’d spent ages contemplating every possible angle.
So, back to the issue of whether to trust Jacob Rees-Mogg. I’d argue there’s a pretty big clue that we can use in this case and that Joan McAlpine highlighted it pretty well; he’s been wrong in the past on this issue. More to the point, and this is something that wasn’t highlighted well, the reason that he was wrong wasn’t just a simple error of judgement (as he claimed) but was also to do with his ideology. The clue’s in the name; conservatives (and therefore Conservatives) are often predisposed to want to conserve things as they are, to dislike large scale systemic (constitutional) change, and to defend and celebrate tradition. If someone is going to oppose something on principle and come-what-may then, if we’re actually concerned about making a good decision, why are we going to listen to them?
Of course, you can apply the same argument to the SNP; their raison d’être is to promote Scottish independence, so of course they’re going to advocate it and attempt to undermine the case against it. Thus, we are returned to a difficult judgement call; choosing between two people who are advocating exactly what we’d expect them to advocate. However, in this instance, one side has been right in the past and the other has been wrong; the SNP has the fact that devolution has worked pretty well (which even JRM admits) going for it, so bringing up the past record of the opponent (and his party) was a sensible option.
If this all seems a little unsatisfactory (or, indeed, very unsatisfactory) that’s because it is. The principle behind the rule of debating that I mentioned earlier is quite good; it would be best if we made decisions (e.g. about what position to support) based more on sound information about the options than on whether or not we trust the people making the arguments. In the case of Scottish independence (as is often (always?) the way with big political issues) there’s lots of information flying around and it’s often highly contradictory. This means that, short of taking plenty of time off work, sitting down and reviewing it for ourselves, we have to put our trust in some source or another (be it a newspaper, politician, or friend) so that our decision is based, if not largely then at least to a significant extent, on the people rather than the arguments. The arguments might sway us but they are reliant on us trusting those who make them.
In an ideal world, with more localised and deliberative democracy, we could shift the basis for decisions towards information but, as things stand, that’s quite difficult for plenty of people. So, assuming that using shortcuts such as who we trust can lead to effective decision-making (and this is a topic for another post) I think one side’s more convincing than the other in the above example. Yes, the SNP are duty-bound to advocate independence, but I still find that more convincing than the opposition from a man who, however affable and bumblingly English, is and always has been fundamentally opposed to constitutional change, even when it’s actually quite a good idea (as he’s ultimately admitted).
You can also see the page associated with this lecture here.