I have brought this blog out of political retirement to say just one thing. Delivering good government is complex.
This should not be a controversial statement. To manage a health service while adapting to new treatments, new equipment and new medical conditions while dealing with an ageing population presenting with ever more complex care needs (my father alone has prostrate cancer, dementia and diabetes) is difficult. To manage an education system which meets the needs of the economy, the expectations of parents and the interest of children all while ensuring those who emerge from it are genuinely educated and able to adapt in a fast-changing world is difficult. Even to put in place a new guided bus system in one city which will attract people out of their cars, improve traffic flow and help the environment while meeting the needs and expectations of people through both the delivery and the transition is a project fraught with immense difficulty.
Delivering these things, and managing the people and systems required to do so, is a hugely complicated and difficult task requiring a significant base of skills and experience.
To repeat, this should not be controversial. And yet it is incredible – incredible – how many people do not take account of it and go about their daily lives as if these things are easy and straightforward. They are not.
This brings us to a problem afflicting the Western World, particularly the Anglosphere – populism. Populists do not come forward with solutions. They come forward with problems and then, given the complexity actually involved with resolving those problems, they pick instead on something simplistic (or, worse, on a particular minority group) to blame. “These things are actually simple”, they say, “except the elite/the establishment/the foreigners/the gays/the weak moaning group-of-your-choice are telling you otherwise!”
Pointing at things which are wrong, they simply point out they are wrong and that they must be put right – but never bother to explain how. So it is in Northern Ireland. One side points out the damage caused by terrorists and the other side points out the damage caused by the denial of rights. But neither gives you a coherent plan to fixing it or even moving on from it. People all over the Western World would no doubt recognise that general problem in their own political system, or at least one very nearby.
In Northern Ireland, what is remarkable is how little public reaction there has been. There are no industrial actions, no protest marches, not even really public discussions of any kind.
Stepping into the void was, supposedly, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign. To its supporters, this looks like an obvious common sense campaign saying that politicians should get back to work.
Yet here is the thing: to DUP supporters it is common sense that it is Sinn Fein which is solely responsible for blocking restoration through its pre-conditions; to Sinn Fein supporters it is common sense that it is the DUP refusing to ensure equal rights as part of government. No one doesn’t want to do the job – it is just the other side is blocking them from doing so. What has #WeDeserveBetter to say about those viewpoints?
Sadly it became apparent almost instantly that #WeDeserveBetter is just as populist as the very populists who are holding us all up.
Firstly, they pointed out how much MLAs have been paid since the Executive fell. Those are, of course, the MLAs we elected, carrying out the platforms under which we elected them. As it happens, comfortably more than half elected under the broadly proportional system we operate were from the two largest parties required to form an Executive. So what does #WeDeserveBetter propose to do about this fact? Ignore popular mandates? Sack the politicians the people elected? Abolish democracy?
Secondly, they then decided to host a rally calling for some common sense changes in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland – primarily reforms to marriage and abortion legislation. This is, in fact, somewhat more complex than it sounds. Presumably, marriage legislation should allow same-sex couples the same rights to civic marriage as any others, but should protect churches from any obligation in this regard (which may require slightly different drafting from the rest of the UK given Northern Ireland’s distinct equality laws, both in terms of the legislation applicable and the legal judgments applied here to it)? On abortion, are we proposing to follow a 50-year-old law in Great Britain which quite specifically does not give the woman the right to choose (taking the risk that courts in Northern Ireland will set the same precedent as they did in Great Britain five decades ago) or something more like the Irish proposal (itself in fact seemingly based on German law, which is much more restrictive than Great Britain’s in terms of timing but establishes more clearly the woman’s right)? What precisely, here, is the #WeDeserveBetter campaign proposing?
Of course, it then turned out that even having the same rights for LGBT and women as in the rest of the UK and Ireland was “divisive”, according to some who believe #WeDeserveBetter. (It should be quite obvious, by the way, that those who have suffered from the denial of basic civil and medical rights definitely “deserve better”.)
So when people came to demand “better”, the fact is they could not even agree on basic principles of social policy. When you then get to the very real and difficult complications of transforming an entire health and social care service; reforming the schools estate and skills; or even implementing a guided bus system; and doing all of this within a budget already well above what we actually raise in revenue, what have they to say? How on earth would they be expected to agree on those highly complex matters, if even basic social policy and rights are too difficult?
Therein lies the difficulty!
At the last election, almost two-thirds of the population voted for the two “problem parties” (defined as those required to form an Executive but unable to agree how to do so) despite knowing that they were the problem parties – indeed, almost 30% voted for a party on the very specific proposition that it would not take its seats in the legislature. Neither party is particularly keen on forming a government because, of course, government is actually complex and difficult. Both remain more popular by not forming a government.
Yet those who would oppose them then fall into the same trap. Just like the DUP and Sinn Fein, they present apparently common sense propositions (“MLAs are paid too much”; “politicians are useless”, “#WeDeserveBetter”), only to find that as soon as a single one of those propositions is tested (“Well obviously we should have a more progressive social policy…”) the whole thing falls apart. Just as with the DUP and Sinn Fein, it turns out to be much easier to oppose the government with some basic slogans no one could be seen to disagree with, than actually form a government to deal with the very real complexities and difficulties of delivering public services and social policy (never mind economic strategies – no one even pretends to bother with those) on behalf of a diverse population.
Thus, even the very basic proposition is ultimately populist, however well meaning it is. We all like to think we “deserve better” – the people opposing that proposition will be as numerous as those opposing the proposition that “terrorists are bad” or that “equal rights are good”! The problem comes when we start defining those terms…
And so it is that when I campaign at elections what I see is a vast majority voting for the very two parties who are quite obviously the problem; when I hit the doors between elections I find very few people prepared to give up their time and join me; and when I propose think tanks to look at very real issues of health, education and jobs no one shows any real interest. It is much easier to tweet angrily about radio programmes playing to our base instinct of “identity politics” where we can just blame an “out group” of our choosing.
I understand. We are all busy. But based on our voting record, our campaigning time and our ability even to think through the complexities and difficulties faced by those trying to deliver a functioning health service, education system and transport infrastructure on a budget limited by what we are ourselves prepared to pay in rates and taxes, I have to wonder – if “we” deserve better, who precisely are “we” and on what basis do we “deserve” it?