Fringe Box



If You Think You Know You Are Not Paying Attention

Published on: 17 Jan, 2013
Updated on: 17 Jan, 2013

its-ok-if-you-dont-know-everythingBy Martin Giles

Listening to ‘Today’ on Radio 4 the other morning I heard Edwina Currie (former MP and Health Minister) say: “He (Nick Clegg on his new radio spot) must never say, ‘I don’t know.’ The electorate like to think that their politicians know everything.”

What world does she live in? Of course our politicians don’t know everything. Does anyone really think that they do?

Bertrand Russell said: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are so confident while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Spot on Bert.

I am more concerned that too many of them don’t seem to know much at all. They might have some idea of the issues of the moment but by no means a comprehensive knowledge of all subjects. How could they?

The more you see of politicians, especially if you engage with them behind the scenes, the more it confirms what we should all know, that they are mere, fallible mortals, just like the rest of us.

But too many of them, judging by their performance when interviewed, actually believe Mrs Currie’s advice. Have you ever heard one say, ‘I have not got the foggiest?’ or, ‘I am not really sure about that.’

I doubt it and I would suggest two reasons:
1. They often have an inflated view of their own intellect and capabilities, so don’t like to admit ignorance, even perhaps to themselves;
2. They agree with Mrs Currie that admitting any ignorance will be damaging to their image.

Of course, there is some truth in that, especially if the question posed is one to which they should have an answer.

If a Chancellor of the Exchequer were asked what he expected to be the impact of a tax rise and he replied: “I have not got the foggiest,” whilst we might admire his candour, we would almost certainly question his judgement and ability.

However, if the interviewer then switched to another subject completely, “What do you think caused the  failure in intelligence that led to this major terrorist incident?” we perhaps should forgive him/her for saying, “Sorry, been up to my eyes with the budget.  The Home Secretary is dealing with that one.”

Then there are the quizzes that some, especially American, interviewers give potential leaders: “So, Mr Wannabe the President, what is the capital of Burkina Faso? Who is the leader of Saudi Arabia? Is Wales in the United Kingdom?*”

We might be concerned with the lack of general knowledge that the answers given might reveal but is it a good measure of a person as a potential leader? Perhaps but perhaps not.

Certainly the media will have a field day with any admitted ignorance and this is probably the main problem. Whilst many of us enjoyed a smug chuckle the American electorate did not seem to care much about George W Bush’s ignorance of geography or foreign affairs but the press on both sides of the Atlantic were scathing and politician’s, ironically, whatever they might like to say, take a great deal of notice about what the press are saying about them.

I once sat through a Home Office senior managers’ conference. The Home Secretary of the day congratulated us all because immigration had not appeared in the press for six months. There was no mention of how we had actually performed or whether our policy and operations were fair, correct or effective.

So here is my advice:

1. Anyone who expects politicians to know everything especially about subjects that are not their responsibility should stop it.
2. Politicians should stop believing that they are superior beings and admit when they don’t know something and (revolutionary, I know) answer questions actually put to them rather than those they wish had been put to them (a bit tangential I know but could not resist it).
3. The media should not expect politicians to be able to answer any question on any subject pillorying those who fail.
oh and er…
4. Edwina Currie should disappear.

There we are, sorted. I hope everyone has taken note. I shall expect improvement.

*According to Charlotte Church, George Bush, when told by her that she came from Wales, asked, “What state is that?”

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