The Neglected P: Politics and Philosophy

Little is more lamented when discussing UK politics as the homogeneity of modern politicians. Admittedly, the case is not helped by three party leaders who all look vaguely like one another’s cousin. It is also much publicised that they, like Boris Johnson, Tony Blair and a host of other contemporary politicians, all went to Oxbridge universities.

Many of the political establishment, past and present, however, are not merely alike in appearance, elite education and wooden hand gestures. They actually all did the same university course; PPE, or Politics, Philosophy and Economics. The Oxbridge alumni of this innocuous sounding qualification include David Cameron, William Hague, Ed Balls, Danny Alexander and the two Milibands. There are many others, but these names alone suggest it would be difficult, no matter how we vote, to elect a non-PPE government in 2015.

Over the last twenty or so years, it seems to have become a given that PPE is what politicians do in order to ‘qualify’ to sort out whatever crises are currently perturbing the populace. Some concerns about the validity and quality of the qualification have been raised. For one thing, it’s not actually the preparation-for-running-the-country course its reputation suggests. It is simply an option anyone could take to study three separate modules of politics, philosophy and economics. One could then study precisely the same material at Essex or Swansea universities, but it is less likely anyone will be beating your door down to come and sort out social mobility or the bond market. The insinuation is that it may in fact be merely a more subtle way of preserving elitism, whilst delivering a qualification of questionable utility. When Boris Johnson was asked if he was jealous of David Cameron’s first class degree, he, with typical affable cattiness, stated he might be if Cameron’s 1st were not in PPE and his 2:1 in Classics. For as we know, nothing prepares you for running one of the world’s premier cities more than knowing a bit about Achilles.

Johnson though is perhaps a touch more Iago than Achilles. After all, politicians do actually need to understand politics, even if it is only to know quite how disingenuous you are being when you call Ed Milliband a Marxist. Economics, meanwhile, recent history has shown is almost synonymous with political fortunes. So a bit of grounding in ‘P’ and the ‘E’ can only be of help to the modern politician, and surely more so than that tip about hiding inside a horse to trick the Greeks. But what of that other ‘P’, philosophy?

I will declare an interest here as a philosophy graduate (not Oxbridge; so with Achilles and Trojan Horses I’m afraid I’ve exhausted my classical allusions for this article), but it does seem the political class make a lot less use of one-third of their degree than the other 66.6%. Taking a philosophical approach to the complex issues that face national and global society is not only avoided, it is obsessively dismissed and scorned as idle talk.

Shortly after the election, David Cameron briefly floated the idea we should consider if we really want ever rising incomes to be the sole driver of policy, when there is little evidence to show this is successful in making people happier. This was immediately shouted down on the basis that he himself was rich with little engagement with the actual argument. Cameron duly stopped talking about redefining anything and now does little else than trying to convince people they have more money than they think and soon they’ll have even more. Similarly Ed Miliband’s early leadership was regularly criticised as overly ‘academic’ because he suggested we needed to model a new ‘responsible capitalism.’ He too duly toned down such talk and instead now similarly treads the safer ground of promising people more money. “We don’t do God,” Alistair Campbell once said, deflecting a question about Tony Blair’s religious views. Philosophy too seems to have fallen into the “don’t do” category, in spite of the fact many politicians are surely pretty expert in the discipline having studied it at the some of the world’s elite educational institutions.

This is surely hugely disadvantageous to our political system. As Boris would appreciate, philosophy comes from the ancient Greek for ‘love of knowledge.’ It is a striving for knowledge of the world, of ourselves, of our relation to the world, of our values and how we can evaluate these values. In a political discourse riddled with soundbites so common place they’ve all but lost any meaning, philosophy could help us understand what we are actually talking about, what we actually mean and what we actually believe.

A politician may, for example, run for office speaking at length about encouraging ‘freedom of choice,’ in all walks of life.  Too often though it is taken as given we know what this means. It would in fact be a great coincidence if our ideas about ‘freedom’ were exactly the same. After all, the politician almost certainly does not mean total unrestrained ‘freedom of choice’. And then the question becomes why is freedom of choice such an exalted value in some scenarios and not others? Why is the freedom to choose to educate your child at a particular school good only if you can pay said institution? Why are employers not free to choose and sack their employees based on their gender or race? Why are we free to choose to eat cows but not horses?  So it becomes ‘freedom of choice within a long-list of unspoken conditions.’ That is not to say these conditions are right or wrong, but their extensive nature means the initial slogan is meaningless, and most likely intentionally so. If you actually state your values, they can be appraised and condemned. A philosophical analysis can make plain the emptiness in the heart of the way we discuss politics, but it can also reconstruct the political vocabulary to be more useful. Once we recognise and state our own values, we can begin to modify them as we hear further evidence. We can argue with others and recognise fundamental differences of value and approach, rather than indulge in name calling and buzzword trading; ‘equality versus aspiration’ ‘security versus liberty’ and such like.

Let’s take a more concrete example of how philosophy could improve political policy and public discussion on a contemporary issue; tax avoidance. So often discussed, particularly in recent years of rising taxes and falling incomes, governments of all persuasions both in the UK and abroad have been criticised for not cracking down on tax loopholes which allow incredibly rich persons and corporations to pay a lower percentage of their income as tax than someone earning an average wage. The criticism is generally political; a cry of ‘this is not what I want’ from the vast majority of people who are not incredibly wealthy and so unable to take advantage of such loopholes. Responses are often economic, as politicians suggest they actually get more money by, say, having Capital Gains Tax at 18% than if it were at 45% like income tax, as if forced to pay 45% said rich people would just leave the country.

At this not particularly advanced stage in the discussion, we seem to reach an impasse. The two sides simply proceed to repeat these arguments until the news cycle moves on. Surely this is the point at which a little philosophy could be instructive in moving the discussion somewhere a touch more interesting. A starting point might be to question if we as a society value the sense of fairness of ‘one rule for all’ more than we value the income we may lose if we implement such a rule more rigorously. More than this though we can ask fundamentally why is it important that people pay their taxes. The answer to this gives us a better idea of how we see society; to what degree we see ourselves as individuals and to what degree as part of a collective inter-dependent social entity. It will also hint towards the terms of membership of that body, our responsibilities to it and it’s implicit limits.

Philosophy can also moralise in a way politics can not: we can question whether is it immoral to avoid taxes and if so why? And if it is immoral, on what grounds we should act, and if actions be universal for everyone, i.e. everyone will act in the same way in the same situation (Immanuel Kant’s principle), what implications does this have for other aspects of public life, like nuclear procurement or corporate bail-outs?

Philosophy is often derided for not providing definitive answers, but it is perfectly possible for individuals to come to firm conclusions about some of the examples mentioned above. Not everyone will agree of course, but that is why it is important there is popular philosophical discussion about those major issues we instead tend to debate in staid oppositional rhetoric. We can then come to a democratic understanding not only of what we value as a society, but what we mean by ‘society’ and the true worth of our ‘values.’ Politicians would certainly stand a much better chance of creating a society which reflects our values if we could come to some conclusions about what those words mean.