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 at the assembled MPs: “answer the bloody questions”.
I cannot be the only one who is increasingly sympathetic to the man’s 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 conclude it is in their interests to dodge the question?
The second reason is 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. First, 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.
This leads us to a second fallacy. Despite the risks outlined above, it is not in fact in politicians’ best interests to avoid answering the question. It might be rational in the short term. But here’s the problem: every time a politician fails to answer a question, everybody’s faith in politics dies a little more. 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.
Our politicians face what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma. They are in a position where when each individual acts rationally, everyone is left worse off overall. But the prisoner’s dilemma has a solution: communication. Only by cooperating to enforce a more forgiving political environment can politicians give themselves the breathing space they need to start taking questions seriously. Only when they do that will the electorate start taking them seriously as well.