William Hague repeatedly refusing to answer a question.
The most serious breach of security in the House of Commons for a decade occurred recently. A man was arrested for hurling a bag of marbles at the screen separating the public gallery from the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions.
What the media missed in covering this rather British form of parliamentary disturbance was what the man was shouting about. Various onlookers, including MP Emily Thornberry, reported that the man was shouting: “answer the bloody questions”.
I cannot be the only one who is increasingly sympathetic to his request. Of all the catastrophic failures of political communication on display in British politics today, none is as endemic as politicians’ refusal to give a straight answer to even the simplest of questions.
While clearly not a recent phenomenon, question-dodging is now completely beyond parody. As this gem of a BBC montage makes clear, rather than looking like they just don’t want to answer the question, it looks increasingly as if politicians are simply incapable of doing so.
So why don’t politicians answer the question? There are, I believe, two reasons.
First, they are afraid. To give a straight answer to a difficult question is to put yourself at the mercy of a brutally unforgiving media environment. Your every word is being scrutinised by journalists, commentators and hostile party operatives from across the political spectrum.
The watching hordes might be looking for an opinion you didn’t hold six months ago. Or for a prediction they can hold against you in the future; or for a promise they know you can’t keep. They are looking for any hint that your line deviates from the party line, or worse – that you don’t know the party line. In short, they are looking for a ‘gaffe’. And thanks to the wonders of YouTube and Twitter, they have an unprecedented length of time in which to find one. Faced with this scrutiny, is it any wonder politicians walk into interviews believing their best strategy, as Alaistair Campbell put it, is to “play for a nil-nil draw”?
The second reason is simply that politicians don’t think people will notice. It is drummed into them by a parade of advisors and media men that the only thing that matters is message discipline. Get out your talking points, at any cost. The audience remembers what you say, not what the question was.
The problem is that the politicians are wrong, on both counts. Because we do notice when politicians don’t answer the questions. We notice even when we don’t fully understand the questions. People are in fact remarkably good at detecting when politicians are using evasive or overly complex language to “Polyfilla over the difficult bits” in an argument, as Boris Johnson – the undisputed king of political waffle – has observed.
And because of this, it is not in fact in politicians’ best interests to avoid answering the question. It might be rational in the short term, given the risks outlined above. But here’s the problem: every time a politician fails to answer a question, everyone’s faith in politics dies a little bit. How could it not? Nothing could do more to confirm our deepest suspicions about politicians.
The inevitable result of serial question-dodging is mass disenfranchisement with politics. And when that takes hold, it is politicians who have the most to lose. It leaves them fighting for an ever-decreasing number of voters. They become beholden to the whims of extremist parties who feed off the strength of the electorate’s anger and disappointment. There is no room for mainstream politicians in such an environment.
How can politicians get out of the verbal prisoner's dilemma in which they are trapped? They should start by looking outside the mainstream. For there is no better example of a politician that actually answers the question than Mr Nigel Farage.
Don’t believe it? Watch any interview with Farage. You might disagree with his answers, but you can’t deny he delivers almost all of them with a relatively straight bat.
The mainstream parties scoff. Of course Farage answers the question. He has the “luxury” of being nowhere near real political power. He can give whatever answer he wants, comfortable in the knowledge that he will never have to answer to the country after five years in government.
They miss the point entirely. Just because policy-focused questions might be easy for Farage does not mean there are no difficult topics for him. There are hard questions on the often-disgraceful behaviour of his rank and file, for instance – harder than anything a Labour or Tory leader has to face. But easy or hard, Farage responds the same: with a simple, direct answer.
It has paid off spectacularly. Farage’s personal ratings are frequently measured as second only to Boris Johnson’s. In their haste to dismiss his populist views, the mainstream missed a key factor in Farage’s popularity. He doesn’t dodge questions. If politicians don’t take note of this now, they may soon regret it.
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