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Sunday, 4 March 2012

Thinking is better when you use your head

The historian David Starkey kicked up a bit of a storm during his latest appearance on Question Time. This is par for the course for Mr Starkey, as is the silly over-reaction to his peculiar brand of intellectual grandstanding. Sadly, if the average edition of Question Time is anything to go by, 'par for the course' in what passes for political debate in the UK involves the reiteration of a series of anodyne, statistic-heavy stock phrases, scripted by spin doctors, enforced by whips and parroted by party hacks with little more than the ability to read and memorise a script. The reaction to Starkey says a great deal about our atrophied capacity for the cut and thrust of grown-up political debate.

Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, provided a particularly dismal example the other night. There was no point in the show at which one felt that she was ‘listening’ to her fellow panellists or indeed ‘considering’ an answer. She didn’t have to ‘listen’ to the questions, because she already ‘knew’ the answers. She didn’t have to think, because she had memorised her responses in advance (and this isn’t a party political point, because all of our mainstream parties are riddled with this kind of intellectual dry rot).
Ms Reeves, drunk on statistics and spin, briefed up to her eyeballs and terrified (or unable) to reveal even the merest hint of anything approaching an original thought or -god forbid- an opinion, exemplified a wretched truth about modern politics. Namely, that to be a thriving member of the professional political class, one merely requires the ability to regurgitate an approved set of platitudes, statistics and stock phrases; there is nothing in the job description about intellectual bravery or insight.

Unlike 99.5% of the usual Question Time panellists, David Starkey is at least prepared to stand or fall by his intellectual arguments. You might not agree with him (or like him), but he will let you know exactly what he thinks and you know that what he thinks will have been arrived at through an intellectual process. His comments on Syria, multiculturalism, taxation and the French have all received critical attention this week, but the reaction to his remarks about the NHS (particularly about the conditions that the British Medical Association has managed to secure for GPs) provide a perfect illustration of a polity mired in censorious groupthink, wallowing in a mushy middle ground wherein conspicuous compassion is more valued than intellectual rigour.

There is a great deal to commend about the idea of the NHS and a lot of wonderful work is done by its employees. But then again, one might be entitled to expect high standards from any organisation that employs 1.3 million people. Unfortunately, political discourse in the UK is not mature enough to handle a discussion on how to improve or modernise the NHS. As soon as you deviate from the line that it is the 'envy of the world', you are branded as a hardline free-marketeer who would like poor people, when not lying dead at the side of the road, at least to have sold all of their meagre possessions (perhaps including their vital organs) to pay for medical insurance.

George Orwell famously wrote that: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

David Starkey reminds us that true intellectual freedom is the hallmark of a mature and functioning democracy. We need people who are willing to tackle sacred cows, to say the ‘unsayable’, to strip away the layers of spin, obfuscation and sentimentality, to get to the very essence of political ideas.
To say, when required, that two plus two makes four.

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