This meeting (9 November 2019) took place a couple of days after the official start of the General Election campaign which will take place on 12 December 2019. Both topics chosen had a political feel to them – to be expected I suppose – and both were related.
The first topic was should we be able to delete social media history from when we were young? The concern was that rash or ill-considered comments made in someone’s youth could be dragged much late in life to embarrass them. This applies to political and other public figures of course and the point was made that the media was always on the lookout for such remarks. The main charge laid against someone in these cases was hypocrisy and some wondered whether this was said too quickly. Maynard Keynes is credited* with saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’
Someone observed that to change one’s mind shows you have one.
Much of the discussion focused on trust and how to establish it. Consistency was one aspect and being able to see what someone said in the past and compare it with today was a way. Deleting the past would frustrate that of course. Some examples were quoted of well known politicians arguing, before the Referendum, for a second one once details were known are now to be heard saying people knew full well what they were voting for. The question of course is where and when to draw it. These were not statements made when they were young.
It was noted that student debates were often on some nonsense subject so to hold someone to things they said then would perhaps be unreasonable. It was also said by several people that we all change our minds as we go through life, cannot politicians do the same? It would seem that time and distance in the past is the key here. If someone did change their mind, was it not justified to ask them why and to give a reason?
The debate moved on to freedom of speech issues and the issue of causing offence was discussed. There is arguably an increase in the number of instances where politicians and others are asked to apologise for ‘causing offence’ to a group, usually a minority one. There was a difference of opinion here with some thinking that causing offence was a real problem and can make minorities feel vulnerable or victimised. Sometimes this hate speech led to physical acts.
Another significant point made by several, was the importance of teaching children to question what they read and the information they receive. They should learn the important distinction between facts and opinions.
The second half of the session switched to the question ‘can a politician tell the truth today and expect to be elected?’ The election had started with some startling claims to spend vast sums on various parts of the economy. Could any politician stand up and say that this may be reckless or unaffordable and would in any event take many years to achieve (the promise of more GPs for example would take a decade)? Was it possible for a prospective politician to say for example ‘our economy is weak, our debt is 80% of GDP, our productivity is poor and if we want a better NHS and more help for the elderly, we are going to have to pay for it with higher taxes.’
It was pointed out straightaway that arguably there were a few who did(do) and Shirley Williams and Caroline Lucas were both mentioned.
The discussion moved quickly onto the life led by MPs now and in particular the role played by social media and the tech giants. A number of MPs – particularly female MPs – were not standing again the main reason appeared to be the constant stream of death, rape and other violent threats they regularly receive. The life of an ordinary MP was described at length in Elizabeth Hardman’s book Why we get the wrong politicians. She paints a fairly dismal picture of life in parliament and the expense and problems of getting there in the first place. At the end of the book you get a good understanding of why we end up with such poor decision making, bad laws and poor governance.
Another key debating point was the nature of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and who decides? A lot of what politicians say is about what will happen in the future if they are elected into office. This is by its nature speculative. In this connection, a local MP can make all sorts of promises but they are promises about his or her party and over which they will have little say (unless they become a minister).
Needless to say the Referendum was mentioned and the point was made that our system was based on the concept of an MP being a representative. This had changed into them becoming delegates. So an MP who thought, prior to the referendum, that we should stay in the EU but his or her constituency voted to come out, what should they do? Were they honest to continue carrying out a policy which they believed to be wrong? Some thought they were not. Also, carrying on supporting a policy knowing that it could not be done was dishonest.
The role of the media was discussed and it was suggested that they often focused a lot on the future which, as we’ve said, is essentially speculative. It was here that we touched on the first debate because what politicians say they will do has to be looked at in terms of what they said they would do in the past and did they do it?
Was it the media’s duty to inform? Some would say yes but it was also noted that newspapers were about selling papers and they had to reflect to a large degree what their readers wanted. No doubt if there was a demand for facts then they would be provided. At least conventional media was subject to some kind of control and the laws of defamation. Social media platforms were outside anyone’s control and enabled people to say anything and say it anonymously. Which is where we came in and the role social media is having in the nation’s discourse…
No doubt we shall come back to this topic area in the future. The next meeting was scheduled for 14th December but it may be too noisy to have a debate in the Playhouse. We shall meet anyway and see.
*there are doubts whether JMK said this.