04 December 2012


Harold Wilson, having told us so often about the “thirteen years of Tory misrule” that we almost came to believe it, announced that we could expect “100 days of gritty pragmatism” when he first entered 10 Downing Street. That’s how I remember it: mostly, the response was a dictionary search for “pragmatism”, gritty or vanilla. He was the author of other notorious sound bites, such as the “gnomes of Zurich” during a financial crisis, though it was the gnomes of the City of London who were short selling the pound, not their brethren in Switzerland.

Anyhow, Wilson is certainly remembered for his pragmatism, the understanding and acceptance of what is the reality, and working with it, rather than trying to force through policies based purely on theoretical political theory. I’m no fan of Harold Wilson, even if he was a consummate politician and founded the Open University.

Pragmatism doesn’t get a good press these days. Rather, we are expected to accept a political theory based on an espoused position — a theory based on on a “wished for” position. Economics is good at this; we hear about “perfect markets” where all have “perfect information”, yet it’s blatantly clear that all don’t have perfect information, otherwise there would be no markets. But then I’m not an economist. I try to live in the real world.

“Evidence based practice” is a modern theme in medicine; no longer is it enough to have an “opinion”. The results of experience were almost sacrosanct, but we learned that experience was a poor teacher, and there were better options. Of course, it isn’t possible to test everything, some areas had to be taken as read, using the best “opinion”. For instance, appendicectomy is the treatment for acute appendicitis, but could it be treated with antibiotics alone? Probably, but it would be a step too far to trial this.

So, even if we are trying to fully rationalise treatment, there are things which we can’t or shouldn’t test for now. We have to be sensible, to accept what’s there, use what evidence we have. We just don’t call it pragmatism.

Sometimes, it seems that we haven’t learnt that some things simply don’t work, and trying more of the same doesn’t work either. Think of Prohibition in the US; it didn’t work, yet we have a “war on drugs”, another prohibition. Just what is the evidence that such a war will work? Or is it just wishful thinking, another triumph of expectation over reality?

And then there’s the “war on terror”, used as a justification for the war in Iraq. That and the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, but ought to have. And a war with no strategy for when it was won. What evidence is there that a “war” needed to be fought, that it ought to be fought? Rhetoric again, the need to be seen to be doing something “tough”?

Look at Greece: their entry to the Eurozone was a fiddle, their figures were massaged to get them in. And once in, they borrowed at low rates, until their borrowings were unsustainable. And the remedy? Austerity and more austerity, driving the country’s economy further into recession. Those who lent money seem to think that they have an overriding right to be repaid, no matter that the social fabric is destroyed. Those who lent can’t accept that they might just have been wrong; it’s very clear what their priority is. Will the Greeks ever be able to repay? Maybe the Greeks were profligate, but someone helped them to be profligate; how does economic destruction help this? The lesson from African debt: cancel the unpayable debts; the countries simply can’t repay. Isn’t it part of capitalism that sometimes companies go bust, and you loose your investment? Why should countries be treated differently?

But I’m not an economist, I just look at things.

I’m simplifying things, they say, the reality is far more complex. Well, the big picture might be big, but stand back a little and see the totality. And if you, an expert, can’t explain things in a way that the average person understands, then you don’t fully understand it either, and you don’t deserve the position you have. Even rocket science can be explained. And don’t try to hide behind arcane language.

Will we see a return to pragmatism? As they say, don’t hold your breath.

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