Cameron's East Germany comparison was absurd and offensive

The Prime Minister's Tea Party-esque caricatures are a substitute for real debate.

In her 2003 book Stasiland, Anna Funder documents what life was like for millions of people in East Germany, the inaptly named German Democratic Republic, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She describes the way the Stasi kept control by spying on people, recruiting half a million people to spy on their neighbours or members of their own families, tapping phones, generating files on their fellow citizens which, laid upright end to end, would have formed a line 180 kilometres long.

In East Germany, political prisoners were jailed. People who attempted to leave were arrested, or even shot as they crossed the border. East Germans voted by approving the only name on the ballot paper, or by putting a line through it. Those who chose not to support the approved candidate - the ballot was not secret - could lose their job or be expelled from university, and would come under close surveillance from the Stasi.

You might think that, whatever arguments and differences British politicians have with each other, we can all agree that nobody wants to change our open, democratic society into anything like East Germany. We have our arguments in public, we campaign for support, we win or we lose and we argue again.

Yet in describing Ed Miliband's superb speech to the Labour Party conference last week, David Cameron was quoted in the Sun as having said, “He might believe in One Nation, but I thought it sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain.”

He might think this is funny. It's unlikely he thinks it's clever. You can tell by the mess he's made of the economy - a double-dip recession and borrowing going up - that David Cameron isn't any good at economics, but surely he's better at history than this. He surely doesn't believe it. If he does, he needs to explain himself.

Here are some of the things Ed Miliband called for last week. Better vocational education and more apprenticeships. A proper split between high street and casino banking. Making it easier for businesses to plan for the long term. An end to rip-off pension charges. I don't know why those things sound like East Germany to David Cameron. They don't sound like East Germany to me. A divided Germany is not the most obvious model for a one nation politician.

The last thing we need in this country is to import the worst elements of US Tea Party politics into our own. It's dishonest, it's fatuous and it debases our politics. We don't need to start comparing our opponents to regimes which in reality epitomise worse evils than anything we see in Britain today, either on the mainstream left or the mainstream right. We don't want politics in which offensive caricatures take the place of arguments, or in which a genuine issue of conscience like abortion becomes a party political dividing line.

I'm sending David Cameron a copy of Stasiland. I genuinely hope he reads it. And then I hope he will realise that he made a bad mistake in stooping so low as to invoke one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century in describing a contemporary mainstream British political party. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on what he said, and take it back.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague during the opening day of the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt