Particularly in the past few years, ‘principle’ has become a highly-prized political commodity. After the lies surrounding the invasion of Iraq, Nick Clegg’s tuition fees debacle, and a general feeling of disgust at the fudge-filled spin doctors patrolling each party HQ, the public is ready for some straight-talking political conviction. Assessments of Jeremy Corbyn generally take one of two forms: ‘he’s principled and…’ (if you like him), or ‘he’s principled but…’ (if you don’t). The one thing everyone can agree on is that his conviction is one of his good points.
He’s not alone in this. While surfing videos on the BBC (as you do), I recently found myself watching Mhairi Black’s much-lauded maiden speech to the House of Commons. The 20-year-old SNP MP spoke with passion and eloquence, but one excerpt in particular caught my attention: a political analogy attributed to a personal hero of hers, Tony Benn. “Weathercocks”, she mused “will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they may have to compromise.” She added that “signposts will stand true and tall and principled.”
If Mhairi Black became Prime Minister, are we therefore to assume that the lady would not be for turning? I couldn’t help but notice that her eulogy for single-minded leadership came just minutes after she had denounced Margaret Thatcher in the strongest terms. Tony Benn was indeed a signpost, but Thatcher was an even more successful one. Both of these signposts are only good if you agree with what’s on them; directions to Essex aren’t much use if you’re trying to get to Surrey. Indeed, later in the very same speech, Ms. Black attacked the current Conservative government for being ‘uncompromising’.
‘Conviction politicians’ can sometimes carve a path that others could not, but at what cost? When the unstoppable force of Margaret Thatcher came up against the immovable object of Arthur Scargill, we did not get constructive discussion, we instead got a turf war. Politicians should be pragmatic public servants, willing to serve the will of the people and compromise when it is in the interests of the nation. Too much personal idealism is a hindrance to this process.
As for Jeremy Corbyn, he was brought into the Labour party leadership race to ‘broaden discussion’, and now that he has won he finds himself trying to force into line a parliamentary party that he himself voted countless times against. By taking so many principled stands he’s given recalcitrant Labour MPs the perfect template for disobeying his leadership. Hilary Benn recently voted with his principles over military action in Syria: he now faces calls for deselection and finds himself on probation in the shadow cabinet.
Furthermore, there seems to be something about ‘principle’ that automatically polarises the political spectrum. If an election were called right now, the country would most likely have to entrust its finances to either George Osbourne (a neo-Thatcherite), or John McDonnell (a neo-Marxist). Both men of evident ideological conviction, the words ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’ spring to mind. In the economy perhaps more than anywhere else, this country is desperately missing the pragmatism of moderation.
Thus Tony Benn’s weathercock analogy is perhaps in need of rephrasing: where weathercocks can each turn a little and point to a mutually constructive middle ground, signposts are resolutely incapable of doing so. Thatcher’s ‘principles’ divided a nation; so would those of Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage or Tony Benn.