Last Monday demonstrated Macmillan’s theory that politics is all about ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ My priorities were to finally get the senior agriculture Ministers to travel up to Cumbria to focus on the uplands and to press the Chancellor to reduce fuel duty. I felt I was making progress. The day’s parliamentary debates were on local government. But at 3:25, while I was in the chamber arguing that small Cumbrian charities should be able to compete with larger national charities, the Prime Minister walked in – leading a crocodile of Cabinet Ministers – and, almost as soon as I sat down, launched into a statement on Libya.
By the time the day ended, I had spoken five times in the house, twice on radio, once in a school and once on TV. The Newsnight make-up lady told me off because I’d bruised my face falling down a hill, caked me with make-up, sprayed my hair and insisted the cameras didn’t close up on my face. (All the texts I received from people after the show urged me to have a haircut). The day lurched between Afghanistan, Cumbrian charities, Libya and the Big Society. Six hundred and fifty MPs were trying – like me – to understand an issue we had hardly considered a week earlier.
Foreign affairs test the limits of a politician’s knowledge. Since we’ve all heard enough about Libya, let’s take Brazil. If you’d asked me yesterday about Brazil, I might have begun: “very large place, couple of hundred million people, speaks Portuguese.” I would perhaps have got as far as the rainforest, a couple of politician’s names. And football. I might have assumed various problems: corruption, dodgy judges, dodgier MPs, tens of millions of unemployed men under 25. I might have assumed disputed frontiers, tensions with neighbours, ethno-sectarian conflict: a kind of Latin American Indonesia, Egypt, or Pakistan. And, of course, I would have been mostly wrong.
Brazil may have corruption and inequality. But it has been a state since 1750, has not warred with its neighbours and has no ethnic or sectarian tensions. Its democracy is pressing ahead with gay rights. Brazil does more manufacturing for German companies than almost any German city. It has a civil service modelled on France. Over twenty million Brazilians are entitled to Italian passports. Its economy is twice the size of Indonesia’s and will be larger than France’s or Britain’s by the end of the decade.
As MPs we are encouraged to disguise our ignorance. In Brazil’s case, you could almost sound knowledgeable by saying things like: “Brazil was once an island because of the Amazon.” Or to make vague claims such as “the supreme court is better than the rest of the judiciary.” But I still would be confused about Simon Bolivar. A Brazilian listening would have the sense of hearing a child reciting by rote and getting it almost, but not quite right. I feel this when I hear American senators hold forth on the difference between North Waziristan and South Waziristan, only to betray that they think South Waziristan is north of North Waziristan. It makes me wonder how well politicians understand the difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan or between Libya and Tunisia. What would it feel like for a citizen of that country to sense our ignorance?
To return to Libya, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were pushed to respond immediately. They didn’t want to be “on the wrong side of history”, they were worried that they had propped up Mubarak, and they were told to ‘win the support of the Arab street.” Because Mubarak fell, we assumed Gaddafi would follow. David Owen was praised for demanding a no-fly zone. Few had time to recollect how ineffectual no-fly zones had been in the Balkans, or how long Mugabe or the Burmese Junta survived foreign sanctions. Or that Gaddafi, unlike Mubarak, may thrive on being a pariah, as he did in the eighties. A generation ago, politicians would have been given time to reflect and watch events unfold. It was months before politicians decided to intervene in Bosnia, and years before they deployed air power. Now all Western governments seem to lack time and the opportunity for reflection.
One help would be to invest in the Foreign Office. Just as we have fewer civil servants today who come from farming backgrounds and really understand agriculture, so too we’ve entered a world where very few British ambassadors in the Middle East speak good Arabic. A more confident, better-informed Foreign Office won’t be able to predict the future, but it will have a much better sense of what is likely. Good policy comes when politicians acknowledge what they don’t know and create and use a confident, well-informed civil service. The politician can then challenge the conventional wisdom and make difficult decisions, but he or she should not pretend to be an expert on everything. We need to listen more, and we need to make sure we have the right people to listen to.