Religion in UK politics has been much in the news lately with Blair’s Damascene conversion to Catholicism, and Nick Clegg’s revelation that he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus’s grumpy brother. UK politics is a little healthier than the US version in this regard, but it’s still disappointing that Clegg felt obliged to wait until he was elected party leader before coming out with this. Then again, as long as he didn’t lie about it beforehand, if no interviewer ever asked him the question, that’s not his fault.
Of course, no rational person believes that Bliar has really changed. He’s been lying about this at least since 2004. And that’s the important thing. Belief in fairies isn’t unforgivable in a politician, but lying about it is. I may be naive, but I think there is a peculiarly British tradition of honesty, of compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. This places us at a significant disadvantage in international trade when UK law is at odds with the practices and traditions of our international customers.
There are sound pragmatic reasons for lawyers to take a more professional, even cynical, view of the law. It is appropriate that they should strive to fight their clients’ cases, employing every trick they can (within the law). But when lawyers become politicians, it demeans the entire establishment when they try to play the system. Sometimes they get away with it: Bill Clinton’s reputation seems to have survived his bizarre testimony to the grand jury. Sometimes, they come across as very silly indeed, like the absurd arch-hypocrite Jonathan Aitken.
There is a long tradition of religion in the military. There are a couple of reasons for this. One fairly obvious one is that it’s relatively easy to recruit someone to risk death in the course of their employment if they don’t believe death is final. Another more subtle one goes back at least as far as Clausewitz, if not the more cryptic allegory of Sun Tzu. Military commanders must be prepared to make decisions and stand by them. When those decisions are based on incomplete data, they may turn out to be right or wrong. Dithering is always wrong. Military commanders must have the self-confidence, even arrogance, to stand by their decisions. Sometimes that self-confidence is boosted by prayer.
Politicians, like military commanders, make important decisions. Like military commanders, they operate on less than perfect situational awareness. Unlike military commanders, they often have days or months to make their decisions. While in principle senior military commanders have access to advice collated by senior analysts informed by hundreds of specialist experts, in practice time constraints rarely allow them this luxury routinely enjoyed by politicians.
We may pragmatically accept that military commanders often need mythological support when they act on our behalf. It is dangerous, but danger is inescapable in split-second life-or-death decisions. When politicians rely on supernatural guidance to inform decisions that they, and their army of civil servants, have had months to consider, those politicians present a danger that we could well afford to do without.