When every single issue is falsely portrayed as a burning crisis, none of our national challenges will receive the considered attention they deserve
“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
― W. H. Auden. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue
The housing crisis. The migrant crisis. The productivity crisis. The deficit crisis. The tedious, annual NHS winter crisis. Brexit. Nearly every important issue or event in our politics is portrayed as a pressing, existential crisis, despite few of them even remotely living up to the definition. If you are sceptical, just ask somebody who was alive and situationally aware in 1940 whether any of the issues which excite politicians and newspaper editors today amount to a real crisis, and see what they have to tell you.
And as it is in Britain, so it is across the Atlantic in America. Surveying the present scene, David French writes in the National Review:
In politics, when everything’s a crisis, it turns out that EVERYTHING’S A CRISIS!
We keep reading that Donald Trump is a unique danger to American democracy, a threat we should put aside partisan tribalism to defeat. Then, seconds later, we read that giving Americans the choice to buy health insurance will kill people by the thousands. Seconds after that, we learn that an entirely conventional Republican tax plan will not only kill people but also extinguish American democracy as we know it. Finally, we read that the end of net neutrality — a regulatory doctrine that only the smallest percentage of Americans even remotely understand — will extinguish American liberty.
[..] For the average American, who pays less attention to politics than to his professional and personal lives, all of this is exhausting. It’s numbing to the point where he can’t possibly determine what’s important and what’s not. So he checks out. He throws his hands in the air and gives up. But for the Americans who care the most about politics and drive our public debate, perpetual crisis is invigorating. It provides meaning and purpose.
A nation’s political culture is always defined by the people who care the most, and the people who care the most in our nation have lost all sense of proportion.
Charles Cooke makes a similar point, but at the more personal level, in the same publication:
Ours is a moment in which millions rush breathlessly to exclaim. In defense! In resistance! In bloody-minded persistence! “I will not back down!” we are told, by people who have not been asked to, and could not be compelled to. They won’t be “intimidated” either, nor “silenced,” nor “bullied” nor, it seems, pushed to any form of self-reflection. Indignation, not analysis, is the perennial order of the day, and the tone of our debates is ineluctably Twitteresque. Retweets are points on the board, and hyperbole gets you oodles of them. The worst. Ding! Insane. Ding! Crisis. Ding, ding, ding! Congratulations, you have been promoted to the next level.
I don’t think I have ever read a more perceptive or honest summary of how political Twitter works, and as a denizen of this world I see more than a few of these negative traits in my own work, some due to personal failures but more often because the difficult pathway to being heard and gaining an audience on social media incentivises some pretty negative behaviours.
It is in the nature of those involved in politics – either doing or writing about it – to imbue their work and their passions with an air of existential importance. In many ways, this is understandable – it is hard to get a hearing in the media, or from the People Who Matter, with a piece of sober, rational analysis addressing a long-running issue; harder still when the competition presents every new report or white paper as some kind of magical elixir to the nation’s woes.
Given the choice, most people want to be Neil Armstrong and not the dedicated but overlooked engineers and project managers who made the Apollo Program a reality. Or if politics is showbusiness for ugly people then most players want to walk the red carpet and be photographed, not lurk in obscurity editing screenplays or building sets. This is human nature, but it has the unfortunate side effect of warping our political process, bending it towards flashy but superficial quick fixes and wonder cures rather than holistic analysis and serious reform.
The word “crisis” in particular is used far too readily at present, by people who should know better. The nature of politics and public policy means that nearly every important decision will ultimately have some direct or indirect impact which can be measured in terms of human lives, thus making it existentially important to at least a few people. In fact, the Left in particular rely on this very phenomenon, since their conspicuous compassion policies front-load the emotional benefits of throwing resources at a problem while deferring or even denying the costs – after all, it is easy to win applause and positive headlines by opposing welfare or healthcare reform, but much harder to counsel delayed gratification or highlight the cumulative toll of welfare dependency on the quality and duration of human life.
But in actual fact there are very few actual full-blown crises facing us at the present time, despite the best efforts of opportunistic politicians and the media to suggest otherwise. Rather, there are a series of slow-burning, serious and often intractable problems which need to be tackled, few of which are likely to lead to sudden national ruin but many of which – if left unattended much longer – have the potential to chip away incessantly at our economic prosperity, national security, democratic health or the stability and cohesion of our society.
The appalling failure of successive governments to adopt a sensible housing policy and increase the housing stock will not lead to an explosion in homelessness or destitution overnight, but it will lead to a continuing sense of rage, disillusionment and alienation among younger voters, as it is already doing. Continuing to stand by an immigration system which proudly fails to make skills or likelihood of assimilation and popular consent the key drivers will not lead to riots in the street tomorrow, but it will continue to drive a wedge between the political class and much of the country. Continuing to enshrine the NHS as our national religion and abide by the strict political doctrine of NHS non tangere will not create an immediate spike in death rates, but it will ensure that UK health outcomes continue to further lag behind those countries with the best healthcare systems.
Labelling something a “crisis” suggests imminent peril requiring immediate remedy, even if the resulting damage control ultimately creates other problems or only succeeds in kicking the can down the road. It advocates for quick fixes, which is exactly what we don’t want at this time. In this period of discontinuity, where the old political settlement has broken down and traditional, familiar policy prescriptions neither work effectively nor command sufficient public confidence, what we need are carefully thought-out and mutually supporting policies rooted in an uncompromising, forensic analysis of the precise problems we face. What we absolutely do not need are a bunch of panicked gimmicks and pseudo-policies cooked up in silos by desperate politicians and leaders whose sole objective is to survive the day and avoid negative headlines.
The difficult truth is this: there is no one pressing crisis the resolution of which will solve all our problems and keep us safe and prosperous in a changing world, and there is no universal and comprehensive solution to any of the problems we deem to be crises. Housing cannot be addressed without revising planning rules, but it is also impossible to adequately plan future housing and infrastructure when there is no meaningful control over mass immigration. Low productivity cannot be addressed without looking at corporate governance, secondary and tertiary education, workers’ rights, union power and addressing the weak commitment to R&D. Indeed across the board there is no silver bullet, no quick fix, no political party with all the right answers, no system of government ideally equipped for the challenge. We must forge a new path.
Far from focusing attention and driving positive change, labelling everything a crisis merely creates apathy, causes many voters to check out and encourages many politicians to either view problems in a highly compartmentalised way or else simply consider them insurmountable, facts of life to be dealt with rather than challenges to be overcome – just as many in the British establishment seemed resigned to irreversible national decline in the 1970s, before Thatcherism finally equipped Britain with the tools to dig ourselves out from the last major period of discontinuity this country faced.
Britain emerged stronger from the late 1970s and 80s because after years of paralysing indecision and timid half-measures from Tory and Labour governments alike we finally made a calm, methodical and dispassionate analysis of the problems holding us back – excessive union power, flawed monetary policy, excessive state involvement in the economy – and set about tackling each of these issues in a coordinated way, as part of a comprehensive national turnaround strategy.
We need to adopt just such a process again today in order to overcome this new period of discontinuity and the specific challenges that it brings. And the first step is to stop viewing every last issue as a standalone, burning crisis.
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I completely agree: no panic fixes please, but rather some clear and deep thinking followed by appropriate communication and action. All too unlikely from the present government, I fear – but maybe Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell will pick up on your advice. Then we really could have a crisis!
We must hope that the Tory ‘circular firing squad’, as the Sunday Times aptly put it this week, finds a way to redirect its fire at JC and JMcD before it’s too late, and wins itself the time for a considered strategy to work.