A neighbour who lived across the fields in rural Co Down used to tell of going to a horse race meeting at Downpatrick with a group of friends from work. Lurking around the entrance was a man offering brown envelopes at £1 each. These envelopes, he claimed, contained tips for the winner in each race on the card that day. Laughing among themselves, my neighbour and his workmates bought envelopes for the fun of it. When they opened the envelopes they discovered that each contained a different list of horses. He smiled as he told the story, “none of us would have admitted being taken in and backing a loser, but when we got a winner we would have said that the man was a great tipster”.
Political choices seems pretty much like horse race tipping, no-one is going to admit that they believed claims by politicians that proved to be completely unfounded. Research by psephologists suggests that people’s memories of how they voted at an election are influenced by how events unfold. When a political party proves to be successful in its policies, more people will claim to have voted for it than actually did; when the policies cause problems, the party’s voters will become amnesiac about how they voted.
The psephological studies are not a surprise, they are a reflection of ordinary human nature. It is not our natural inclination to admit that we were wrong, that we made a mistake. When things are clearly wrong, pride can sometimes make us more firmly entrenched, more determined we are right. Contemporary politics has exacerbated problems caused by our natural inclinations, it affirms polemic over consensus, stridency over conciliation.
The politics of the centre ground might be a fudge, but at least they create space for pragmatism, they allow for the measurement of ideas against economic reality rather than against party ideology. The polarised politics that now characterise the exchanges in the House of Commons mean that there is little space for people on either side to say that their party’s approach is a dud, that there has been a mistake. Shout that the emperor has no clothes, and Twitter and Facebook will be filled with vile attacks on you, because people who cannot argue their ground on principle will always resort to ad hominem aggression. At root, no-one wants the embarrassment of admitting that they paid for bad tips.
Perhaps a return to reason and reasonable behaviour will come, it doesn’t seem likely soon.