UK Politics

The Essay: The case for doubt in politics

G20 leaders in Toronto in 2010

Politicians may rarely admit to doubts, but in his contribution to a week-long series of essays for BBC Radio 3, Mark Vernon says doubt, although sometimes troubling, may be more useful and valuable in politics than fixed opinions and beliefs.

In the spring of 399 BC, Socrates drank the hemlock and died.

For most of his long life, he had been fortunate enough to live in a democracy. Athens had been an ideal home for a man whose trademark was to ask simple but unsettling questions.

If what Plato tells us is right, he would ask politicians whether they really knew what they were talking about when they promised their fellows the good life. It turned out the politicians did not. Worse still, they believed their own rhetoric and were ignorant of their ignorance.

This troubled Socrates. What future for democracy, if it rested on such self-delusion?

He felt it was vitally important to admit that the human condition is one of profound uncertainty, deep doubt. We are in-between creatures. On the one hand, we are not ignorant and un-self-aware like most other animals. We can learn much. But on the other hand, we are not omniscient and all-seeing like the gods.

This is why the lust for certainty is a sin, as a former Archbishop of York put it, because certainty demands the eradication of doubts and imagining you are a god.

Forget that life is enveloped not just by known unknowns but unknown unknowns and you will fall like Icarus from the sky.

Not knowing

Socrates became a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, which is to say someone who sought with a passion to understand what he lacked.

He was unlike the politicians in that he knew he was ignorant about many things. It was for this reason that the Delphic oracle had declared that no-one was wiser than he. Wisdom can tolerate doubt.

A few of his fellow citizens took to this message. But it seems that most did not. It is not comfortable to have your ignorance exposed in the marketplace, where Socrates loitered with his unnerving questions.

It is not pleasant to feel that being human is like treading water in oceans of untold depths. They said that speaking to Socrates was like being stung by a ray. Others saw him coming and darted down a side street to avoid an encounter.

And in 399 BC it finally came to a head. The first democracy found its greatest son guilty. The freedom to explore the uncertainties at the heart of human life was too much. The citizens lost faith in their new political adventure and in themselves.

I think the word faith is the right one to use, because to be able to doubt requires a kind of faith. It is the faith which tells you that tolerating doubt is worthwhile because amidst the anxieties of ignorance and uncertainty, something useful and valuable will be found. Faith might be defined as the capacity to see that doubt is troubling and meaningful.

To put it another way, a dislike of doubt in politics implies a loss of faith in politics. This does appear accurately to characterise our current condition, given falling membership of political parties and polling evidence on the widespread distrust of politicians.

This is a troubling problem for democracy, because democracy depends upon the goodwill of the people.

When faith departs and doubts grow, crisis will follow. Government buildings will have to be surrounded by barricades and police, as has been seen in modern day Athens.

Worse, a democratic deficit can become a political crisis from which tyranny may follow. Socrates' death can be read as symptomatic of such a wobble. In the decade or so before his death, the young democracy had been overturned twice by oligarchs.

False certainty

Mistakes can be made in responding to this predicament. One is to try to make up for this lack of faith, this not-doing-doubt, by pretending it doesn't exist, by a kind of force of will.

You see it exhibited in the faux-certainty of some political leaders. They affirm absolute confidence in their colleagues, until they are absolutely clear the colleague must go. No-one believes them.

Alternatively, you see the pretence that doubt doesn't exist when politicians turn to the flaky certainties of evidence-based policy, as if the education of children or the rehabilitation of criminals could be decided by scientific fiat.

The scientists know that their research comes hedged with doubt. But then, there's the headlines 'red wine causes cancer' and 'pre-school children are too stressed'. The researchers must bury their heads in their hands.

I don't think there is much mileage in apportioning blame either. Candidates include the media, which has a severe intolerance of doubt, deepened by the 24-hour news cycle.

Or you might point a finger at the welfare state.

The argument here is that an advanced welfare state, such as our own, unwittingly nurtures a litigious culture by over-promising on what it can deliver. Someone, somewhere should pay the price for what is, in truth, a humdrum risk of death in life. Or it creates an environment of suspicion in which it is thought that someone, somewhere is in the know about the perils of, say, avian flu. Something must be done.

But again, calls for action easily mutate into demands for certainty, where certainty is not to be had. Doubt-intolerance grows.

A better strategy may be to accept that doubt is a perennial problem for democracies. It was there at the start, with the death of Socrates. He was a victim of democracy's group psychology, and groups are notoriously unable to bear doubts.

Eighty years after Socrates, Plato's pupil Aristotle felt the force of that truth.

The power of humour

Nationalistic Athens was whipped up again, this time by the democrat and orator Demosthenes, and Aristotle found himself on the wrong side. He left, going into self-exile, because he understood the logic of crowds. He didn't want the Athenians to commit a crime against philosophy twice.

So much for the dark side. What more positively to do?

It is worth reflecting on the fact that doubt becomes more palatable when sweetened by good humour. Wit allows us to face the unknown with less fear.

Image caption Enoch Powell's view that all political careers end in failure could be adapted to curb over-expectations

Sigmund Freud thought that jokes work by converting anxiety into pleasure. He recalled the jest made by the criminal being led to the gallows. It happened to be a Monday morning and so the villain cracked, 'not a good start to the week.' He died more at ease, with a smile.

Socrates too is remembered for his irony. When he was asked what he thought might be a suitable punishment for his crimes, he replied, free meals for life.

To put it another way, Freud continues, humour eases doubt because it releases the energy that feeds the fear.

"Look here," the joke goes, "this is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. A jest." It's not really true, but for a moment we can feel safer and in that moment maybe learn something lasting about our feelings about doubt.

Satire is certainly part of a mature, democratic society - and it not only pokes fun at those with power. It aids citizens too. It prompts us not to demand faux-certainties from the powerful. It reminds us of their limitations and our own.

To achieve this double effect, it has to be performed in the right spirit - a spirit that prompts we citizens to reflect on ourselves as well has have a laugh at our masters.

If satire only mocks the mighty, it may leave us with the comfortable delusion that the mighty are all to blame. If it makes us feel uneasy too, amidst the belly laughs and chuckles, then that might be because it is true to a degree at least, that we get the politicians we deserve.

Powell's maxim

On occasion, horror and calamity happens. Where there is doubt there is also the real possibility of mishap, error and failure. In the political sphere, Enoch Powell nailed it when he said: "All political lives… end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."

But there is hope in his remark too, for it seems to me that there are different ways of failing.

One is to fail badly, raging and seeking revenge. The politician who fails in this way will rush to write self-justifying memoirs or instigate scorched earth policies as they leave office.

But there is a good way of failing. I don't mean a stiff-upper lip kind of failure that grins and bears it. Rather, it's the good failure that paves a way for what follows.

It's a subtle attitude, though one well understood in child psychology.

The British paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, argued that a mother must fail her child in order that the child can make its way in the world. A perfect mother, who anticipated and fulfilled her child's every need, would actually be a tyrant.

Conversely, the primary-carer of a child must not fail the child too deeply or too often. If that happens, it suffers what Winnicott called impingements - experiences that leave the infant feeling under mortal threat, as if life itself might fail them.

It's a balance, which Winnicott summed up in the useful phrase, the good-enough mother. The good-enough primary carer fails their charge well, so that the young child discovers a sense of its own agency, its own self.

Good-enough politicians

The psychotherapist, Andrew Samuels, has proposed that this might be a handy notion to deploy in politics. In his book, Politics on the Couch, he argues that we need good-enough politicians. They will fail us because that is what politicians do, that is what life does.

However, they might fail us well, so that as citizens their failure can encourage us to discover our agency, to be empowered - like the young child.

We might re-write Enoch Powell. It is not just that all political lives end in failure. Rather, the greatest political lives, knowing they will fail, strive to fail well so that others might live more bravely and better.

There would be benefits if voters could feel that they needed good-enough, not perfect politicians.

It might curtail the poisonous cycles of doubt in politics - the apportioning of blame, the demand that something, anything must be done. It might lessen the idealisation, when the politician promises the world. And then also the inevitable denigration, when the politician is subsequently belittled for failing to deliver the impossible.

The good-enough principle could be applied to the welfare state too, and the litigious culture that it risks nurturing.

A health system that was good-enough would be there for us when serious impingements threatened. And it would also equip us to face up to the uncertainties of life and death. Similarly, an education system that was good-enough would ensure that all children had the basics. And it would also foster the energy, curiosity and pleasure that empowers the child to take the risks that lead to a deeper self-education too.

This might seem fantastical given our punishing political culture today. What politician would survive the mockery of the press were they openly to aim to be good-enough?

And yet, Andrew Samuels continues, perhaps there is a way to do it. What the good-enough politician might cultivate is not delusions of omnipotent power, the certainties that know no doubt. Instead, they could cultivate the energy inherent in the kind of politics that equips others to pioneer change.

Political catalysts

Such leaders position themselves as catalysts.

It is striking that this kind of politics copes well with doubt. In fact, uncertainty and failure appear to instil only more resolution and faith. Think of environmental politics. Failure presses in on every side, as talks collapse and international meetings fall apart. And yet, every setback renews the energy, inspires more creativity and imagination.

It might be in these arenas that we find lessons in the kind of politics with the faith to face life's doubts, with the faith to tolerate uncertainty.

What they have achieved is a rediscovery of soul. They manifest a kind of political spirituality, in the environmental case shown as a deep respect, a sense of the sacredness, of the earth. This generates a felt sense of aliveness - and so a well-resourced commitment, in spite of it all.

Doubt is before us. Though in truth it always was. We are the in between creature. To live well with doubt is to do well at being human, as Socrates tried to teach those first democrats.