Question Time only in name… we’re trading in certainties

Question Time on BBC 1 has become a good reason for going to bed early. We get the same issues that have been debated all week debated again, the same arguments, conveyed with that deeply unconvincing  passion that’s required of politicians and commentators these days.

Digby Jones insists there was no link between trade and Al Megrahi’s release in discussions with Libya, but he is concerned that an issue of such moment could be left to a Scottish minister to decide. It would be worse if Brown wasn’t involved.  Either way relations with the US were damaged. Digby Jones was an accidental politician, and it showed. His was a wise and common-sense approach. The exception.

Michael Heseltine sees not so much damage to the special relationship, and more a confirmation that such a thing doesn’t exist, which is mischievous. The term has as many different meanings as there are politicians and people. Given history, language, shared experiences links go deep, the special relationship is almost a default position but in terms of economic and strategic consideration we are only one of a number of partners – Germany, Japan and of course China. At least it was said with humour.

From the Lib Dens we had ‘astonishment’, and from Harriet Harman we had blather – assertions that convinced no-one. If Digby Jones was the exception these two were the rule.

What we have so much of now is taking sides, rather than a debate about issues, recognising shades of grey, sincere decisions that go wrong, misreading of indications. The Zen approach recognises that all arguments are tentative and personal, that everything changes, the view one week can be very different next week. It recognises how far the world falls short. It inculcates humility and wisdom.

My specific contribution here would be to argue that the surer and more assertive you are and want to be, the more cautious you should be. Certainty involves emotion, and emotion clouds the mind. It’s all too easy to rejoice in having answers, and the security that comes therefrom. A questioning mindset on the other hand allows us to keep an open mind, and be more aware of the others’ points of view.

Karl Popper argued against certainties, from Plato to Marx, in The Open Society, and for progress made through an ongoing and never-ending process of learning, of trial and error. In our time we find certainties underpinning the neo-con proponents of a market economy and US-style democracy. For them the only definition of a liberal democracy is an unfettered market economy, with no room for that other favoured and much more nuanced contender, social democracy.  For a few years the neo-cons in the USA and their certainties have called the tune in US policy. No more.

There will always be cycles in such matters, as we move toward certainty and the comfort of certainty (the end of history, the end of economics in the pre-2007, pre-crash days), and then back toward an open mind, toward learning and change, and humility. I was going to say toward insecurity as well, but that’s the point of this piece.  For certainty gives an impression of security, but given the impermanence of what it disguises it is fragile and liable to suddenly implode. Open minds on the other hand may appear unsure and vacillating and yet it is open minds that allow balanced debate and decision-making, and that has to be our highest goal, more than the decisions themselves.

If we get how we debate the issues right, then we will get the decisions right – or as right as we ever will.

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