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The Triumph of Principle Over Pragmatism in Politics Must Be Curbed

22/01/2013 12:00 GMT | Updated 23/03/2013 09:12 GMT

Good governance is a rare commodity. It requires compromise, flexibility and progressive thinking. Unfortunately, our political discourse is firmly rooted in a handful of supposedly eternal truths that received wisdom tells us we can never sacrifice. This thinking needs to be altered if governments are to effectively serve the greatest good.

Nowhere is this truer than in the United States. Recent gun legislation caused uproar within a conservative base that claimed President Obama was taking away their second amendment right to bear arms. The constitution is meant to be a set of inviolable principles, they cried, and anyone who disavows them must be either a fascist or a tyrant. Obama was compared to dictators as murderous as Hitler and Stalin, and a terrified right howled that the first step towards an autocratic regime is when the people are denied access to weapons.

Whether Obama's plan is actually unconstitutional is still a subject for debate (NB, it isn't). But if you take the rules of the constitution - or any set of political principles for that matter - as unbreakable no matter what, you are committed to a nonsense position: that for every single conceivable future world these principles will still be perfect. A document written well over 200 years ago must invariably provide suitable solutions for problems several hundred years from now, problems that are as yet unfathomable.

This same logical fallacy is attributable to Americans that have signed Grover Norquist's pledge to never raise taxes, whatever the weather. Holding to this particular principle resolutely denies government the ability to raise taxes by just half a percent, say, on the richest 1% of Americans, in a time of war, famine or pestilence. It is this same diehard attitude towards fundamental ideals that roots Republican obstructionism in Congress, preventing the making of compromises for the sake of the nation.

Often, the adherence to dated principles flies square in the face of contradictory statistical evidence. Those looking for an example of this need look no further than death penalty legislation. Problem is, backtracking on an ideological commitment is seen as a sign of supreme weakness. It is, supposedly, the calling card of a government that does not stand for anything at all.

Nothing has done more to alienate a certain hard core of Liberal Democrat voters than Nick Clegg's very public U-turn on tuition fees, a not unpredictable policy backtrack given a political landscape in which the only predictable thing is change. Ken Clarke's retreat over prison reform a few years ago was greeted with a rather warmer reception, if only to save face for sound bytes such as "the punishment should fit the crime."

Similar unbudgeable mantras are also a barrier to reasoned debate over defense spending. Cutting Trident, for example, tends to be taken off the table pretty quickly when it is miscast as "letting the terrorists win." But with £100 billion in potential savings at stake, we cannot let an archaic national security agenda stand in the way of the substantial progress that could be made if we abandoned our previously held beliefs - strong though that they may be.

True, defense cuts are a more substantial deviation from our traditional national ideology than we are used to, but reforms don't have to be conspicuously radical to jar with our previously held convictions to such an extent that we reject them outright. The Leveson report, for instance, was, by all accounts, a set of perfectly moderate suggestions. All it took was a few vague references to a vacuous notion of a 'free press' to quash any chance of a press regulator that actually does its job.

Consider also inflation targets, set in place years ago at central banks around the world, which, whilst well-intentioned and suitable for the vast majority of economic climates, are completely unsuited to our current predicaments. This is no ordinary crisis, yet inflation targets have not been adjusted to reflect this, lest the party behind any upward move be portrayed as overt supporters of a 'spend now, pay later' economic philosophy.

The result is a landscape of ineradicable political bigotry left, right, and centre. But, should the facts change, politicians should be able to reserve the right to change their minds along with them in the interest of optimal policy making, without being regarded as soft or spineless. Good governance is not about the strength of your convictions, but the alignment of your convictions behind the appropriate causes at the appropriate times.

This seems all part of some larger social project politicians have of diving opinions into distinct categories, preferably as few as possible. Political agendas fall into clean cut columns; you're either capitalist or socialist, liberal or conservative, small government or big government, spend more or austerity. Governments like throwing their weight behind an immovable position or ideology because it's easy to understand. It wins votes. But it will not lead to the kind of flexible, progressive policymaking that serves us all best in the long run.