Euan McColm: We are poorly served by a political class devoid of self-doubt
Admirers of the high art of comedy may be familiar with an especially brilliant sketch written and performed by David Mitchell and Robert Webb. The pair – dressed in Germany army uniforms – are on a World War Two battlefield, preparing an attack. Webb’s character, puffed up and confident, puts down a field telephone, and declares, “They’re coming. Now we’ll see how these Russians deal with a crack SS division.”
As distant gunfire echoes, Mitchell’s character approaches, nervously clears his throat, and begins, “Hans…”
“Have courage, my friend,” says Webb’s alpha.
“Yeah, eh, Hans, I’ve just noticed something,” comes the reply.
“These communists are all cowards.”
“Have you looked out our caps, recently?” asks Mitchell’s beta.
“The badges on our caps, have you looked at them?”
“What? No… a bit.”
With an anguished look on his face, Mitchell’s character continues, “They’ve got skulls on them. Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them?”
“I don’t, um…”
“Hans,” Mitchell’s soldier continues, tentatively, “…are we the baddies?”
There is more to come and I urge you, if you haven’t seen it, to seek out the sketch, online. It is masterful stuff that endures almost 15 years after it was first broadcast on the double act’s BBC Two sketch show.
Perhaps what makes this sketch so timeless, beyond the excellence of the performances, is that it captures something with which we can all identify. Which of us hasn’t, at some crucial point in our lives, been stricken by a moment of crushing self-doubt? Which of us hasn’t wondered whether, maybe, we are in the wrong?
I watched the sketch again last week and it occurred to me that it could not be more relevant, right now.
Self-examination has never been so unfashionable; uncertainty is a weakness to be deplored (or exploited).
Among the political classes, absolute certainty must be maintained, even in the face of crushing evidence that destroys one’s assertions.
Think of the bluster of former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, who led the war against nuance during 2014’s independence referendum campaign. Any difficult question about how he might oversee the break-up of the UK was dismissed by Salmond as part of a “Project Fear” campaign designed to terrify voters who might not have believed independence to be in Scotland’s best interests.
Salmond’s aggressive reaction to legitimate inquiry created a culture in the Yes campaign where the done thing was not to consider the question but to question the motives of the questioner. After all, since we could be certain that independence would be a very good thing with no downsides, anyone who suggested otherwise must have had malice in their hearts.
Of course Scotland would retain its EU membership after voting Yes, insisted Salmond, in the face of remarks from the EU that contradicted him. Of course an independent Scotland would enter into a currency union with what was left of the UK, despite assurances from the then chancellor and his Westminster shadows that no such arrangement would or could take place. Of course Scotland, standing proudly alone, would be wealthy and prosperous, even though the price of North Sea oil – on which this assertion was based – was plummeting.
This absolute certainty infected the Yes campaign which, often, mistook angry shouting for debate and went on to discover that it needed more than blind faith to persuade a majority of Scots to support the independence project.
A year later, as Donald Trump ramped up his campaign to become American President, dangerous certainty reached a new, even more disturbing level. Evidence of Trump’s misdeeds – things like film and audio recordings and paperwork that, by any standard, proved he was unsuitable for the role he sought – was rejected by the candidate as “fake news” and his supporters, so utterly convinced that Trump would make good on his promise to “make America great again”, accepted his words as truth. To question Trump’s claims was to be a traitor.
And in 2016, the same characterisation of doubt as weakness proved invaluable to Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson as they bluffed their way to victory in the referendum on EU membership. Their every proclamation about “freedom” and “sovereignty” was accepted, without question, by their disciples.
Self-reflection can be a painful business; it’s hardly surprising that we are so uncomfortable about doing it. It’s so much easier to blame a former partner for the break down of a relationship than it is to consider whether our own behaviour might have played its part. It’s comforting to think that we missed out on a promotion because the interviewer had it in for us rather than because, maybe, another candidate was better suited.
Over recent weeks, we’ve listened as contenders to become the next leader of the Conservative Party and, by extension, Prime Minister of the UK, have set out their “plans” to achieve Brexit where Theresa May failed. With the honourable exception of Rory Stewart, whose decision to engage with reality rather than to rely on fantasy ruled him wholly unsuitable for the job, these men relied on loud declarations of certainty to maintain their campaigns.
The final two candidates – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt (a choice to rank alongside “punch in the face or kick in the crotch, sir?”) – are still at it. They’re still telling us they can get a new deal out of the EU, even as the EU insists the withdrawal agreement struck with Theresa May is the only one available.
Hunt and Johnson – or, more accurately, the parade of lickspittle MPs who have appeared in the media in his stead while he hides from scrutiny –continue to assert, with bullet-proofed certainty, that they have plans to make a success of Brexit when all the evidence says that they damned well do not.
The certainty of politicians comes with a large dollop of nauseating moral superiority on top. How much healthier our democracy would be if, even just occasionally, those who wish to lead us were to stop and ask themselves some direct and awkward questions: Are we correct about this? Do we have right on our side? Are we the baddies?