Euan McColm: I'm with Obama on snake oil salesmen

The populists make everything seem so simple. No matter what the issue, these political hucksters invite us to roll-up, roll-up and get our quick fixes from them.

Obama at the Old Course in 
St Andrews on Friday, before 
he headed to Edinburgh to deliver his speech. Picture: Robert Perry/Getty
Obama at the Old Course in St Andrews on Friday, before he headed to Edinburgh to deliver his speech. Picture: Robert Perry/Getty

Americans worried about crime (or who were just racists) couldn’t get enough of Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico; a large number of Brits concerned about underfunding of the NHS (or who were just racists) ordered double doses of Nigel Farage’s promise that the UK’s departure from the European Union would transform public services.

These little men, and others like them, prey on insecurity in order to win support for their causes. They identify a fear, stoke it up, and then explain how, with just two drops a day of their miraculous tincture, all your worries will evaporate.

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These days, it can seem like the snake oil salesmen are running everything; the rise of populist nationalist movements across the world has given an awful lot of influence to an awful lot of awful people.

So praise be for a politician who’s prepared to describe the world and the problems it faces in less simplistic terms.

On Friday evening, former president of the US, Barack Obama, was in Scotland to deliver a speech at a dinner organised by the businessman and philanthropist Tom Hunter. Obama may have risen to become the most powerful man in the world on the back of a campaign that dealt in big slogans – “Yes, we can,” for example – but, in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, he delivered a welcome reminder that things are not quite so straightforward as the populists would like us to believe.

Two words leapt out at me from Obama’s speech in defence of liberal values. Not only was government, no matter how well-intentioned, “imperfect”, it also involved a degree of “hypocrisy”. To those expecting easy answers to difficult issues, the former president’s message was clear – there are none.

One could make the case, I suppose, that during difficult times – and the global financial crash of 2008 and its fallout have certainly created those – we need to hear simple, inspiring messages of hope. People, having seen their lifestyles dramatically affected by events of almost a decade ago, already know that government is imperfect so, of course, we can see the appeal of a politician who promises to put things right.

But Obama reminded us that things aren’t quite so straightforward.

While the home truth about imperfection was reassuring, it was Obama’s remark about hypocrisy that hit home hardest for me.

Government is a messy and complex business. The decisions taken by those who lead are not always palatable and they do not always chime with the established positions taken by politicians.

It is on matters of foreign policy that we hear the loudest criticism of the hypocrisy of politicians. Leaders who commit to military action should expect to be denounced as warmongers, driven not by a desire to bring order but by a need to satisfy a voracious bloodlust.

Democracy, Obama said on Friday night, is an imperfect thing.

There was no mention – bar acknowledgement of his disappointment with the result of the US election – of Donald Trump during the former president’s speech. But the new president and his politics seemed to inform every word Obama spoke. Obama’s description of the complexity of power contrasted starkly with Trump’s “We’re going to do a really great thing that will be really great” schtick.

Sitting near the stage on Friday night was Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. I daresay Sturgeon sees herself as a kindred spirit of Obama’s. She, after all, talks the same language of hope and optimism that he does.

But surely she must have squirmed in her chair as the former president made plain his disdain for nationalism.

On any issue – from the Iraq war to funding of the NHS – the SNP will tell you that the solution is the break-up of the United Kingdom. Their “civic” nationalism – which, of course, is the same as other nationalisms in that the border and the flag are key – is precisely the sort of simplistic, divisive politics that Obama was arguing against.

Most of us do not live our lives to some kind of blueprint. When circumstances change, out opinions may do likewise. We may, through necessity, do things that might not sit easily with our personal codes. But we don’t see ourselves as hypocrites for changing our positions, do we? We think – and we are right – that we are making the best of the hand we are dealt.

Yet we do not afford politicians the same leeway to adapt and change that we enjoy ourselves. We hold politicians to an impossible standard where it is not permitted to deviate from a position once it has been stated.

This is not a defence of broken promises. When a politician drops a pledge that helped win an election (usually because although the idea was appealing, it was totally unworkable) we should still feel entitled to unleash upon them our scorn.

But we should be wary of politicians whose views never change.

A common complaint I hear from senior politicians is that, once power is attained, it is not always easy to exercise it: sometimes awkward civil servants get in the way; sometimes it becomes clear the implications of a policy are not as expected; and sometimes there are simply more important priorities for the men and women making the big decisions.

It would do our politics a great deal of good if we treated those who offer simple solutions with more scepticism and paid more heed to those who deal in shades of grey.

There will be those who sniff that, well, it’s easy for Obama to talk about imperfection and hypocrisy now that he’s not seeking re-election, and, of course, departure from office is hugely liberating for any senior politician.

But, even so, what the former president said on Friday night was both true and important.

Here’s to the imperfect hypocrites of politics. They’re the ones to trust.