in ourselves. Even people we might think of as being very humble may use their very humility as a form of arrogance. However, they are not the subject of my blog this week. The people I wish to write about are those who have turned their
arrogance into a way of life and use it to lecture us at every opportunity.
First we need a definition, so I can go to no better authority than the OED who define arrogance as having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities. I couldn’t have put it better myself - or is it arrogant for me to say
We are quite used to seeing arrogance in its many forms. The most common stems from the class system where some people arrogantly assume that they are superior to the rest of us simply because they were lucky enough to be born into a particular family. Nowadays this can be extended to those who have have, through hard work, talent or blind luck, become rich and/or famous. So we’re talking about the minor aristocracy (and I do mean minor), the business people, the celebrities and the sports stars, the actors, comedians, artists, musicians and the rest. I don’t wish to defend these people, but at least one can sort of see where they’re coming from even if we dislike their arrogance. But they still aren’t the ones I wish to talk about.
The really arrogant are those who force their opinions on us. Why them and not the others? Because they are, as often as not, no more an authority on the world than we are but they seem to think that they, and they alone, have the answer to everything. To refer you back to the definition they have an exaggeratedsense of their own importance. They just assume that they are right and act accordingly. When they form themselves into groups with shared ideas they become even more unshakeable in their belief that they, collectively, are right and everyone else is wrong.
I won’t be naming many names in this blog (libel laws Your Honour) but the clues are sufficient to work out who I’m talking about if you choose to follow them up.
To start with we have the politicians. A 2.2 in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE as it’s known) from Ruritania University is now, apparently, all you need to be qualified to tell the rest of the country how we should live our lives. The critical part of that qualification is the economics bit and makes up just one third of the available study time. That is a
total of one year out of a three year degree course. Actually its less than that because of the long student holidays. Call it 8 months out of a 24 month degree course.
Of course many politicians have better qualifications than that, but surprisingly few are educated past the level of
many of the people they seek to govern and very few are educated at postgraduate level. Some of those who have studied for longer periods, such as medical doctors, may be very good at treating illnesses, but that doesn’t mean they have the qualifications necessary to run a country or to tell us how we should live our lives. Knowing how to cure a sick person doesn’t mean you can cure a sick economy.
Looking at the current crop in the three main parties, David Cameron has a First Class Honours in PPE, or a BA (Hons) to put it in Ruritania University speak. Ed Milliband graduated with an upper second in PPE though he did go on to gain an MSc in Economics. Nick Clegg gained an upper second in social anthropology (very useful for a politician, don’t you think?). George Osborne has an upper second in modern history but no qualification in economics, yet he feels he is qualified to manage the British economy. His would-be replacement, Ed balls, isn’t as well educated in economics as his boss Ed Milliband, having only a first in PPE. That’s the fine array of talent who run, or who want to run, our nation. Throw a handful of gravel into the middle of a crowd of graduates at any major university and you will hit someone who is better qualified for the job.
Of course education isn’t everything, is it? There’s experience as well. OK, let’s look at that. David Cameron went straight
into politics as a researcher though he did spend a bit of time working in PR. Ed Milliband started as a political researcher with Channel 4 then went into politics as a researcher for Harriet Harman. Nick Clegg started as a lobbyist
(on behalf of Col Gaddafi’s Libya, what judgement he has), went to work for the EU commission for a couple of years and then into British politics. George Osborne worked as a data entry clerk for the NHS for a while, fdid a couple of other low paid jobs, worked for a short while as a journalist then went into politics. Ed Balls spent a couple of terms teaching at Harvard no less, did a bit of journalism and then, you’ve guessed it, went into politics. What a worldly wise bunch they are. Yet still they insist they know best. Oddly, with three different parties represented in that little group, they can’t, by definition, all know best. If they did they would all be in the same party.
Leaving aside the paucity of their education and experience, politicians just simply refuse to acknowledge that they might, just possibly, with the best will in the world, be WRONG. That’s wrong in their political beliefs, of course, but also wrong in some of the decisions they make. I’m not being party political in this, because it applies to all parties. Most
obvious amongst the suprememy arrogant at the moment are Alex Salmond, who cannot countenance the possibility that he might be wrong about Scottish independence, and Nigel Farage that he might possibly be wrong about British membership of the EU. I’m not saying that they are wrong, but there must be the faintest possibility that they are and they are too arrogant to concede such a notion. The Scottish people, however, will have to live with the consequences if the Yes vote wins the independence referendum but Salmond turns out to be wrong. The rest of us would have to live with the consequences if Farage is wrong but we withdraw from the EU because we’re persuaded by his arrogance that he is right. (Alex Salmond has a joint MA in Economics and Medieval History (what?), then went into the civil service before entering politics. Nigel Farage didn’t attend university. Instead he went into commodities trading before entering politics.)
The reason I know that this stubbornness to concede their viewpoint may be flawed is because no argument in politics is ever clear cut. Unlike mathematics there is never a completely right answer or a completely wrong answer. In any decision that is made there will be an upside and a downside. Supporters of a particular position will always overplay the
upside and underplay the downside. Sometimes they underplay the downside to the point where they deny that there even is a downside, which is just plain barmy.
For Salmond there simply isn’t a downside for his position on Scottish independence. For Farage there is no downside to
withdrawing from the EU. If they accept that there is a downside then I have never heard them acknowledge it or read any report of them acknowledging it. That isn’t reasonable and it isn’t rational and we must always beware of
irrational people because they will make irrational decisions, otherwise known as blunders. But their arrogance drives them forward like demented robots advancing their cause while trying to bulldoze supporters and opponents alike into an uncertain future. Salmond and Farage, however, aren’t unique. Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are full of politicians and wannabe politicians who have an equally exaggerated belief in themselves and their opinions.
It could be argued that politicians must have that sort of belief otherwise they could never make a decision. That’s a fair point. If they are uncertain in their views then they may be indecisive and an indecisive government is worse than no government at all. But decision making that is driven by the arrogant certainty that one’s political doctrine is the
only political doctrine worth following inevitably means that poor decisions will be made, because there is no “one size fits all” solution to any problem and political doctrine leads to “one size fits all” decision making. There is a downside to every decision and if it isn’t acknowledged then someone is going to have to pay the price for that and you can bet your life it won’t be the politicians that made the decision.
The preponderance amongst politicians of low level degrees in economics is worrying, because economics isn’t a science, it’s a pseudo-science. None of its theories are provable through experimentation. To find out if a theory works
it has to be tried out for real and it’s a bit late to find out its rubbish when the economy is collapsing round our ears, as it seems to do every ten years or so. To create their economic theories economists study the past and try to work out what
happened. It’s very easy to miss something that might be important or to dismiss something as insignificant because it doesn’t fit the theory that one is trying to create. In other words it’s a discipline that’s open to error. If you base
your decisions on a theory that is open to error it’s inevitable that you’ll make a decision that’s open to error, but try to get any politician to admit that.
Our lives used to be governed by just that sort of arrogance. We called it an absolute monarchy and Kings and Queens made decisions based on their belief that they had the divine right to rule and any decision they made was backed up by God. We got rid of the absolute monarchy, so why do we now accept the concept that a politician of any party is going to be absolutely right just because he or she adheres to a particular political doctrine? Don’t be fooled by the idea of “cabinet decision making” because all the people in the cabinet are there because they share the political beliefs of
the leader. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be allowed through the door. There can no dissension in politics if you want to climb the greasy poll. The absolute monarchy still exists, but now we call it by a different name.
I feel strongly that politics is the new religion and the modern day exponents of politics behave in much the same way as the the bigotted clergy of medieval times. Any questioning of doctrine is heretical and can get one metaphorically burnt at the stake. Any politician that doesn’t toe the party line can forget about being promoted and may find themselves de-selected from their constituency. Anyone from a rival religion (political party) is an infidel and must be destroyed. Listen to the people who use the word “hate”. I don’t mean in its everyday use as in “I hate Brussel sprouts”. I mean in its vicious form of “I hate Tories” or “I hate Socialists” (usually accompanied by an expletive used as an adjective). They are the Taliban of British politics; unreasoning and uncritical slaves to their political beliefs. Their Gods are Nye Bevan or Margaret Thatcher and they would cut off the head of the unbeliever if they could. Their bigotry drives their arrogance.
The sort of arrogance portrayed by some of our politicians leads some of them to still try to tell us that, despite all the evidence, we were right to get involved with the Iraq war; That the recession was the fault of the banks rather than a failure to manage the economy properly. There’s no doubt that the banking crisis didn’t help matters and may even have been the final straw to break the camel's back, but economists (the proper ones with PhDs) had been warning of an impending recession long before the banking crisis started. The camel’s back was already under severe strain. No doubt the current crop of government politicians are already preparing their excuses for when the chickens of their own doctrine led decision making finally come home to roost. You read it here first. This time will they blame the bankers again, the previous government (always an old favourite) or the global economy? Will they blame China, Russia or the USA (another favourite)? Maybe they’ll blame the Martians or the weather. Your guess is as good as mine, but its guaranteed that they'll blames someone else for their cock-ups. Ethier that or they'll just go into denial.
Of course politicians are not alone in this sort of arrogance. There is a lot of it in the media as well. I take you back to the
end of the 20th century and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) scandal that started in 1998. A fraudulent research paper was published by a doctor who was working for lawyers representing some families who were convinced that their children’s autism was linked to the MRR Vaccine. The families were desperate and no blame can be attached to them. The press got hold of the story and two newspapers in particular supported Doctor Andrew Wakefield’s claims and published several articles on the subject (these two were far from alone but they mounted the most vigorous campaigns). One journalist was especially vociferous, though she had no medical qualifications or experience whatsoever on which to base her arguments. She was, and still is, supremely arrogant. The result of the campaigns run by these two newspapers was
that many families refused to allow their children to be inoculated with the MMR vaccine. The consequence is that many children are now suffering from these debilitating illnesses and complications caused by them such as encephalitis
and corneal scarring. Any pregnant woman whose lack of immunity causes her to catch rubella (German measles) risks the health of her unborn child.
Wakefield has now been struck off the medical register and his claims have been entirely discredited. The Lancet, where the paper had been published, fully retracted it in 2010 following legal actions and a full General Medical Council investigation. Neither of the two newspapers have ever published a retraction or an apology for their part in the misreporting of the issue and the journalist I referred to continues to arrogantly claim that she was right. The newspapers weren’t alone, however. The TV news programmes were filled with reports on the subject and they reach far wider audiences than the two newspapers combined. They did documentaries on the subject but these were always inconclusive, hardly surprising as the original claims were fraudulent and as such led to more confusion for worried parents. Have the TV companies involved ever acknowledged the part they had to play? I think you know the answer to that one. Arrogance means never having to say you’re sorry.
It didn’t help that the Prime Minister of the day refused to comment on whether his young son had been given the MMR vaccine, claiming that it was a matter of privacy. I don’t hold with that viewpoint. When the health of hundreds of thousands of children is at stake setting a clear example is the least a Prime Minister can do. I don’t hold with feeding possibly infected beef burgers to a small child, as John Gummer did during the BSE crisis, but at least he was trying to set an example.
There is a final category of arrogance that I would like to write about this week. Its possibly the very worst. That is the arrogance of celebrities that seem to think we should hang onto their every word.
I’m not talking about the sort of comedians who use political humour as part of their act. Using humour to puncture the vanity (and arrogance) of politicians has a long established tradition in Britain and long may it remain so. It makes us
feel better and serves to remind politicians of their short comings. No, the people I’m talking about are those celebrities who use their celebrity status to ram their views down our throats when they are off stage or off the sports field
or off camera. Actually it is the presence of cameras that usually make them most vociferous. They’re entitled to their opinions, I hear you say. True, but opinions are like penises. It’s perfectly alright to have one, but it’s definitely not alright to ram it down someone else’s throat. At least not unless you’ve been invited to do so.
Having an upper second in English Literature from Cambridge doesn’t make you the world’s expert in everything, even if you do have your own TV panel show in which you ask the questions and then read the answers from cards. Having a BA in English Literature from Manchester University doesn’t mean you’re entitled to lecture the rest of us on politics. Having grown up in Dun Laoghaire or Dublin and being able to sing a bit doesn’t entitle you to lecture the rest of the world on poverty. If you’re a minor musician from Barking who left school at 15 and can play a guitar you’re not qualified to tell
others what politics they should have. You’re only qualified to play the guitar and to pontificate on anything else is the height of arrogance. We're actually back to politics as the new religion and while these people may not be the clergy, they are definitely the most ardent persecutors of the heretics.
There are a handful of TV presenters whose arrogance drips from the screen. They use their platform to promote their
political doctrine and act abominably towards any viewer who is foolish enough to challenge their views. The term “balanced journalism” has no meaning for them.
I could describe many more such celebs but I think you get my drift here. I have no problem with the celebrity status of any of the people to which I allude, but their celebrity is based on a narrow range of skills and/or talents and in some cases no visible talent at all. Their political ideals were formed in the 6th form common room or, worse, in the pub and rarely advance beyond that level of understanding of the world. To try to make out that their narrow range of skills and talents does somehow make them an expert on everything is the worst form of arrogance. I refer you once again to the definition.
What is worse is when politicians (of all parties – you’re all guilty of it) use these celebrities to enhance their own status. We have recently heard about functions in both Downing Street and the Roundhouse Theatre at which politicians rubbed shoulder with celebrities, each hoping to enhance their credibility with the public by being seen with the other. It isn’t
unusual to see some celebrity figure in a prominent, camera friendly seat at party conferences. The trouble is some people do fall for it. If celebrity X is seen with politician Y doesn’t it mean that celebrity X is worth listening to? No it means nothing of the sort. The reverse also holds true and the politician is no more credible just because they’re seen swapping gossip with the lead singer of the Magical Pyjamas or whichever is the trendiest pop group of the moment. It would be quite sad if it wasn't so sick making.
Is there anything you or I can do to counter this arrogance? Not much. By definition these people have an inflated sense of their own importance and so are not going to listen to the likes of you and I. But you could try e-mailing a link to this blog to your local MP or tweet it to your favourite know-it-all celebrity. Maybe they’ll start to get the message.
Back in the days of ancient Rome victorious generals would be accorded“triumphs”; great processions where the general would display his prisoners and the treasure he had amassed for Rome. The crowds would cheer and throw flowers and for the duration of the day the general would feel like a God. But riding in his chariot with him the general would carry a slave whose job it was to whisper in his ear lest he should start to get arrogant. “Memento Mori” the slave would say; “Remember that you are a mortal man.” I don’t know if it worked, but it’s worth thinking about reintroducing the concept. If you suddenly see scruffy men or women standing behind David Cameron and Ed Milliband, whicpering into their ear then you know my idea has been accepted.
Thank you to reader Stephen French who suggested this as a subject for my blog. When I first read his suggestion I thought he might be hinting that I was arrogant, but then I realised that he is just a man of good taste and fine judgement. If anyone else has suggestions for subjects that I might cover then please feel free to e-mail them to me using the address on the “contact” page. There is a reward.