Confusion and doublethink

By Jill Segger
April 22, 2010

Try out these two statements: Britain “has an electoral system that really works”. “Vote Clegg, get Brown”

It would be rational to assume that two such diametrically opposed views came from two different brains. Not so. Both remarks were made by David Cameron this week.

This looks more like cynical opportunism than confusion – Cameron is a slick public relations operator. I believe that an email I received from my constituency Conservative candidate in response to questions on his views about constitutional reform were evidence of muddled thinking rather than of anything less honest. Although having held the seat for over twenty years – winning it in 2005 with less than 50 per cent of the vote - indicates that his personal interests are not served by reform of the first past the post system.

He poured scorn on Gordon Brown's “death-bed conversion” to PR. He also told me that a written constitution would make the political system “less responsive to future demands for reform”. It is difficult to understand how demands for reform might be met if politicians and voters are to be derided for sometimes changing their minds as to the best way of running a democratic system.

Of course, a politician who permits changing circumstances to bring about a change in their thinking should lay those thought processes out for the electorate to evaluate. But most of us have a reasonably sophisticated grasp of moral and intellectual development and prefer not to label every instance of a changed mind as opportunistic. The conjugation “I have developed my thinking; you have made a U-turn” is silly and sclerotic.

Is it too much to ask for democratic politicians to put democracy before party advantage? To expect principle both in necessary consistency and in necessary change? To show a little humility about their own thinking? To admit past error or limitation without fearing to appear weak?

The intensely adversarial nature of our politics makes it probable that the answers to that little burst of rhetorical questioning will be “yes, it is too much”. If that is the case, then all the claims that the leaders will make in this evening's debate about their unique ability to deliver change should be subject to some very close questioning as to the detail of that change. Honest confusion may be clarified and corrected. Doublethink is far more dangerous and intransigent.

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