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Our high-speed politicians need to learn the quiet, unassuming virtue of patience

Nothing is as simple as it seems.

Politicians are never happier than when making an announcement. You can see the flash of purpose in their eyes, that ferocious desire to be seen to do something, and what better to demonstrate progress than a major transport infrastructure project – something physical and practical that comes with an engine and the perfect photo opportunity attached: David Cameron, sleeves rolled up on a zooming train; or Nick Clegg in a sharp suit, bounding off a carriage with a rare look of optimism on his drooping face.

Cameron’s sound bite was a classic of its kind: “It is vital that we get on board the highspeed revolution,” he blurbed. “We are in a global race and this government’s decision to make high-speed rail a reality is another example of the action we are taking to equip Britain to compete and thrive in that race.”

It could be a satirical poem. Note the close attention to language: “revolution”, “decision”, “action” – all the dramatic “doing” nouns are present and correct. Then there’s a nice pun (“get on board the high-speed revolution”) and, most sledgehammerish of all, a frenzied attempt to appeal to our basest competitive instincts. This “global race” idea has been around for a while, wheeled out by the Prime Minister on the instruction of some zealous adviser with the dead-eyed doggedness of someone who knows he’s speaking in code and it isn’t catching on. What race? Who else is in it? Everyone? Where is the finishing line, and what do we get if we win? The questions pile up unanswered, but in any case, I suspect most of us aren’t that worried about a fictitious international league table when the reality of navigating the HMRC website or paying a gas bill looms.

As a politician you have to care about winning – that’s the lifeblood of the game. The problem is that anyone who cares more about winning than anything else has to think tactically. Elections always hover in the near future and so there is the constant need for a quick fix or new toy with which to seduce the voter. Politicians are by definition impatient – they have power and therefore cannot understand or tolerate things not happening or any interruption to the constant show of activity. There can’t be a better metaphor for political impatience than HS2 – a package of reduced journey times, new jobs and growth all wrapped up in a seductive promise of speed. The faster we go, the better everything must be, so the logic goes.

The night of the announcement about high-speed rail, I happened to watch the perfect and opposite expression of this idea. West of Memphis is a recently released documentary about three young men from Arkansas, who in 1994 were wrongly charged with murdering three little boys. In the court’s rush to convict, the accused were found guilty, despite a lack of any physical evidence to pin them to the crime scene. The film charts the long, stubborn public campaign that eventually resulted in their release from prison in 2011, after 18 years inside.

It is a horrifying depiction of political impatience – the hunger to find culprits demonstrated in the manipulations of the police and the American justice system’s dysfunctionality. But it was the portraits of the campaigners and the accused that struck me the most. One was the girlfriend and then wife of Damien Echols, who had been branded the satanic ringleader of the trio and sentenced to death. For year after year, she fought, cajoled, struggled and battled with the political and legal systems to free her husband.

Then there was the even greater patience of Damien himself. At an awareness-raising concert, the actor Johnny Depp, a supporter of the campaign to free the trio, read out a paragraph written by Echols while in prison: “I can’t remember what it’s like to walk as a human being anymore. It’s been well over 16 years since I’ve walked anywhere. There are times when I’ve thought, surely someone is going to put a stop to this. Ah well, it does no good to dwell on it. Either I waste my energy by focusing on things I cannot change or I conserve my energy and apply it to things I can change.”

It is the perfect counterpoint to David Cameron’s speed-happy sound bite, and as an expression of patience in the face of power (as opposed to the impatience of power), it is poignantly eloquent. Here is a man incarcerated and shackled for so long that he has forgotten the natural movement of his body (when Echols was finally released, he had to keep wearing tinted sunglasses as his eyes were unable to cope with sunlight). Physically trapped, imprisoned for a crime that it was widely recognised he didn’t commit, it seemed inevitable that Echols would succumb to frustration and the psychological ravages of injustice. Yet he decided to conserve his energy, and wait.

Echols’s attitude might seem an extreme demonstration of patience but the word in its original form implies the tolerance of suffering. It derives directly from the Latin, pati, meaning to suffer or endure. It is not just about biding time but about withstanding pain. It is also about realising that the world doesn’t dance to your wishes and that there is not always a ready and neat solution.

For those in power, such thinking does not come naturally. The instinctive rhetoric is always one of moving forward, of the next bright thing to clutch at to distract us from the general mess – it is the schoolboy desire for a race to win, rather than the quiet acceptance of a more complicated fate.

The irony is that even with high-speed rail, our patience as citizens is required – not just the patience of those who deplore its route through their back gardens, or even of those who can’t wait to hop aboard and will have to wait 20 years till the thing’s built, but the patience of anyone who has been fervently promised by a politician that this will serve up jobs, growth and a brighter future. Nothing is as simple as that.


Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation