Many years ago when my daughter was about 10 years old I went one day to get a couple of new tyres fitted on the family car and she asked if she could come with me. As we stood in the tyre fitting bay watching the guys take off the old tyres and replace them with new Kate (she was at that time a bit of a tom-boy) turned to me and said “That looks a great job, I’d like to be a tyre fitter when I grow up”. Ever the teacher (and, I suppose, keen to show my parental wisdom) my reply went something along the lines of “Well, that’s great, but if you pass all your exams on your way through school you will be able to choose if you want to be a tyre fitter. Pass the exams and you can choose whatever job you want. If you don’t pass your exams you’ll have no choice, you may have to take any job that you can get”. At the time I can remember feeling a little proud of what I saw as a bit of positive parenting and a few months ago I was quite pleased to hear from Kate that she still remembered that conversation; I suspect that she will be repeating it to her own teenage girls in the not too distant future! Of course, and on reflection, my words were not very prophetic – today with the economic uncertainties of the world even passing all one’s exams and more guarantees nothing; we don’t always get the choices that we want in life.
We hear the word “choice” frequently from government ministers and politicians of all persuasions but especially those of the Tory party and other right wing groups. It seems in the modern world to be the ultimate justification for any action: “Privatisation of the railway network will bring greater competition and choice” we read years ago; “Turning schools into self governing academies will allow parents greater choice” has been hammered home in recent years. It’s been the same story with our energy – competition was introduced to give consumers greater “choice” and thus make it easier and cheaper for the man in the street. Or, “Deregulating financial institutions such as banks will ensure that people have greater choice in their financial dealings” we were told by Margaret Thatcher’s administration. Well, we all know where that got us – the financial crash of 2007/2008 from which we are still suffering and leading to many in our 2017 UK society still being crushed from the fall-out from that misguided and immoral policy. The results of that ill conceived policy of financial deregulation has been years of austerity, government cut backs on welfare, health and education, and a struggling economy. It has thrown thousands or even millions into the poverty trap. No, “choice” sounds a worthy cause and a good battle cry but it is not quite all that it seems.
This obsession with “choice” as a necessarily good thing is based largely upon libertarian philosophical beliefs – the right of the individual to make his or her own choices unencumbered by what are seen as the dictats of the state. It is the philosophy that allowed Margaret Thatcher to famously comment: “You will always spend the pound in your pocket better than the state will.” It was the same philosophy and same line of thought that encouraged Thatcher’s awful Chancellor of the Exchequer (perhaps partner in crime would be a better title) Nigel Lawson to argue: “High taxes rob people of the opportunity to make the moral choice to assist them.” This last quote is, in my view, one of the most outrageous and unforgivable ever uttered by an English politician of any persuasion. In Lawson’s view, governments should discourage high taxes in order that those with money can keep more of it and thus decide if they should act morally and exercise their moral choice of whether or not to offer those less fortunate than themselves benevolent support. Charles Dickens would have recognised this philosophy well as would many of Dickens’ characters who were at the sharp end of the wealthy proffering (or not!) benevolent support via the workhouse. Could there be a more facile and at the same time outrageous justification for low taxes – that it gives those with money the opportunity to decide whether or not they should act morally?
“Choice” is one of those words that have a positive ring about it – everybody should be in favour of choice.......shouldn’t they? To say that one is not in favour of choice is, in today’s world, like admitting you are only half human; it increasingly justifies all action and belief in today’s pluralistic, consumerist and market driven society. But we should beware. Even Thatcher admitted very late in life that giving people the choice on how they spent their money hadn’t quite worked out how she had hoped or planned: saying that “we hoped allowing people to keep more of their earnings would allow wealth to trickle down to those less fortunate but it didn’t, they simply kept the money”. Well, bang goes Nigel Lawson’s warped reasoning.
Choice, as I suggested to my daughter as we stood in the tyre fitting bay, and as Simon Jenkins in his Guardian article argues is very much related to power. If I have the right qualifications then I am in a powerful position to exercise various choices in relation to the job I might desire; if I am, like Donald Trump the leader of a powerful nation I have more weight to throw round to back up my choices. On the other hand if I have no qualifications or am at the bottom of society’s heap then my choices are severely limited. I am fortunate, I have savings and money in my pocket, a house of some value and these things give me enormous power to choose – what shall I eat tonight, where shall I eat, should I buy this item or that one, where shall I choose to go on my holiday.....and so the list goes on. But if I did not have the power that money and security gives me few of these choices would be available to me; instead, we read more and more today of an increasing number of people in contemporary Britain are having to make very different and much harder choices such as shall I heat my house or buy food, shall I pay the rent or buy a new pair of shoes for my child?
Jenkins is also correct in the second half of his comment – if people in power have the benefit of being able to make choices then it is incumbent upon them to use that power wisely – or as Jenkins says with “moderation”. When powerful people who make choices that impact upon the rest of us do not act or choose wisely or with moderation then we have the situation that we have today in many western societies – not least our own - great inequality. The powerful are imposing their will upon the weak, and a consequent rise in extremism is the usual outcome. At its most glaring and worrying we have the rise of despots and tyrants - Nazi Germany was a case in point; Hitler did not use his power with “moderation”. As I look at the USA today and at our own UK society I see two societies almost at that tipping point as their leaders – most obviously Donald Trump, but we in the UK are not far behind - consistently make inappropriate and immoderate policy choices.
Choice is, in real terms, relative to the position in which one finds oneself. To take the simplistic view that choice is by definition a good thing is to ignore that fact – it only becomes universally desirable when everyone has the same opportunity in their choices; in the hugely unequal societies of the UK and the USA or between the vastly wealthy western societies and poorer third world societies it is a meaningless quality. That we in the west desire to be able to choose a vast range of foodstuffs from around the world, or to be able to buy clothes cheaply on our High Street, or to be able to buy items from Amazon and other on-line retailers at ridiculously cheap prices means that millions in far off countries or in great internet warehouses labour on zero hours contracts or in sweat shops for little remuneration which in turn gives them little choice in their lives. In this morning’s Guardian (September 22nd 2017) journalist Anne Perkins writes when discussing the budget airline Ryanair: “We moan about stagnant pay and then go online to buy cheap flights to the sun subsidised by other people’s stagnant pay. We are eagerly complicit in conduct we deplore. We sustain a system that only works to our benefit in the immediate present. We have sold our soul, or at least other people’s secure jobs and decent wages, for serial holidays abroad........This is the monstrous offspring in the marriage between deregulation and consumerism....... It has become a perfect reflection of our greedy refusal to look an implausibly cheap horse in the mouth, let alone examine its back teeth. It is a parable of our times”. She is not wrong. My desire to be able to choose any of the things that we take for granted in today’s society often means that I am actively discouraging the choice that others, either in my own society or further afield, have.
American poet Archibald MacLeish famously said that “Freedom is the right to choose” – well yes, maybe it is. Certainly that belief might figure highly in the mindset of many Americans whose belief in “freedom” (whatever it means) is part of their very being – they treat it with almost evangelical reverence. It is the American dream, it is at the core of their constitution, it is the belief that drives the philosophy of the libertarian and the extreme right.
But it is not the whole story; it is also the philosophy that underpins the hateful doctrine of Ayn Rand.When I read that freedom and choice go together I am reminded of poet John Milton’s cautionary comment "None can love freedom heartily but good men. The rest love not freedom but licence". So, when Trump tells us that America will have no choice but to “totally destroy North Korea” I am of the view that just as Tony Blair and George W Bush did almost two decades ago what he is really saying is that “I am big and powerful and so I can refute other options or choices and have the licence to do as I please”. It is the exact philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand in her dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged – a book beloved of many right wing politicians, believers and, worryingly, many like Sajid Javid, a senior minister in our own Tory Government who, it is said, keeps a copy of the book in his office desk. Blair and Bush chose that same path giving them licence to carry out their campaign against Sadam Hussein’s Iraq. It ultimately reduced much of the middle east and further afield to both rubble and a powder keg from we are still suffering, and will continue to suffer, as terrorist seek to destroy our society and streets.
When Donald Trump tells us that he has “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” he illustrates precisely why he is unfit to hold the position that he does. Read any basic text on government or politics and one of the first lessons that will be taught is that government in a democracy is all about making choices. Trump, it would seem, does not understand this – either because he is intellectually incapable of understanding the logical and linguistic stupidity of his statement or because he has no grasp of the nature of government. I suspect it is a combination of both of these failings. There is, of course, a third option in the case of Donald Trump – namely that he is very aware of the seeds that he is sowing when he makes pronouncements like this – and that is a truly horrifying prospect. If it is the case, and it may well be, then he is indeed a very dangerous man. For the sake of argument, therefore, I will restrict my verdict to his ineptitude and simple fitness for office – that third option is too worrying to contemplate.
In any decisions about government or political policy those responsible have to make choices and thence decisions – which policy should they adopt, which approach will make it work, how best can we deal with its implications........and a thousand more such questions of choice. There are, for a government, always choices – indeed, that is what any government of any persuasion is for – to make choices on behalf of the electorate. One of my favourite comments on this was put forward by the Labour politician Tony Benn – in fact it was the prime reason for him coming into politics. Benn said: “If we can find the money to kill people in war then we can find the money to help people in peace.” Quite – as Benn implies, it is the role of governments to choose what to spend money on and what to promote as policy; there are always choices. The secret of good government is making the right choices and using the power given by the electorate with, as Simon Jenkins says, “moderation”. I might not like the choices that my government makes – for example the choices that Margaret Thatcher made on my behalf – but it is against those criteria that people then vote at the next election – namely, did the government make the choices that I approved of? So, for Trump to tell the world that there is “no choice” is simply and manifestly not the case; in short he has chosen this route out of the many on offer. Equally, when a government tells the electorate that there are no choices and that a particular course of action must be followed come what may then the electorate is being denied the basic premise of democracy – namely choice.
In doing this Trump, and others who claim “there is no other choice” as a motive for a particular course of action, by doing so gain a clever advantage. It is a kind of get out clause which justifies their action by claiming that it absolves them of all responsibility for its results. If I claim that there is no other possible course of action than that which I propose then I am saying “I have no control over this, I am forced into carrying out this action” – I am simply a victim of circumstance. It is the defence made by many throughout history – serial killers who allegedly “heard voices” telling them to carry out their awful deeds, dictators and rogue military leaders who claimed that the atrocities committed in their name were the result of the situation in which they found themselves. Nazi war criminals claimed this defence when put on trial in Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War. It is a powerful get out card and one that we should beware of – especially when the person claiming it as a motive for their action is armed with the most powerful weapons known to mankind.
|All nuance removed - if you are not with us then you are against us.|
But Trump’s stance has another, and even more worrying, dimension. When someone justifies their actions by saying “there is no other choice”, that there is no alternative to the course of action that they are proposing, then something else kicks in. It is something that we have seen most glaringly in our own Brexit debacle – namely that all nuance and difference of opinion is lost. There are now no shades of grey we are told by those proposing and supporting the action. It is the only thing to be done and if you are not supportive of it then you are, by definition, against it; this is the language and mindset of the tyrant or the mob. If one doesn’t support this, the only option, then one is unpatriotic, a trouble maker, weak, in need of re-education; it is the theme of dystopian novels like 1984 or The Handmaids Tale. It is what we increasingly see screaming from the headlines of our Brexit supporting tabloid press in the UK – most notably the Daily Mail . It is the doctrine that sweeps dictators and extreme regimes to power. All discussion and debate become irrelevant, for there can be no debate – it gives a pretext to the mob or those in power to incarcerate dissenters without trial or hang them from lamp-posts or to put them on trains bound for concentration camps. Truth and facts becomes confused and hard to distinguish as propaganda and fake news become the only currency. It is, in short, what we increasingly see on the other side of the Atlantic in Trump’s USA.
We should be very afraid; the most powerful man on earth claims to have “no choice” in what he might do and at the same time appears unable to comprehend the logic and the implications of what he is saying. We live in very dangerous times.