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November 25, 2012



Good stuff. The fallacy of 'I've experienced is so I know it' is at least one reason why people keep falling for the fallacy of looking at the government's budget like a household budget.


There is merit in experiential knowledge, as distinct from scholarly knowledge, particularly in the field of politics.

Motivation plays a big part in policy setting. If a politician has never experienced (either first hand or second hand) the damaging effects of poverty then they are less likely to campaign on an anti-poverty ticket. If I recall, Harold Wilson was a man on the left because he witnessed in childhood what unemployment did to his father.

I doubt Nick Clegg, David Cameron, or George Osborne have come close to experiencing poverty, either first hand or second hand.

George Hallam

"It is not the background of Cameron, Freud and Osborne that stops them making effective anti-poverty policy. It is their ignorance and ideology."

Only half right.
It's not is their "ignorance and ideology".

They don't have any ideology and they know very well what they are doing. What's driving them are their material interests.


This is true at the level of the individual, but I'm less convinced it is also true at the level of the group.

Clearly, personal class background does not prevent anyone representing a different set of class interests. You mention Attlee et al but you might also have mentioned any of quite a large number of Tory politicians with impeccable working class origins.

But once you have got, as we increasingly have, a Commons and a media almost entirely devoid of anyone who combines both ideological commitment to the poor and dispossessed *and* direct experience of life at the bottom of the pile then surely something disappears from the quality & content of public debate?


"The same is true for most professions; expertise matters, not background"

I think the error here is in comparing politics with medicine or engineering.


Worth noting that we'd had some idiotic policymaking on science and technology (and medicine) over the years and that seems very correlated with having government and parliament and judiciary largely composed of innumerate Oxbridge classicists.

(It doesn't help that it seems you can squirt through an Oxford PPE without learning much on the technical side...)


This is reasonably true. I disagree with the assumption that their anti-poverty policy is bad.

The coalition are working to improve the economy, the education system and the welfare system. The problems in all three are very, very deeply entrenched. It will take a long time to come even close to solving them. The tories won't be thanked, and because the effects of this kind of reform lag so far behind, not many people will even recognise what they're doing.

As for background. No, it certainly doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter if Cameron didn't learn much technical economics at Oxford - his ability to run people and meet the reality of our problems head on is far more important. If I thought he was spending his evenings with a calculator and a spreadsheet downloaded from the ONS website, I would truly despair. But fortunately, that doesn't look to be the case...


Hoover - oh yes the present government is really coming to terms with the crisis of capitalism (or at least the present hyper financialized form of it). How can they when the conservatives derive more than half their income from the very sector that has pushed the economy to the point of collapse?


"How can they when the conservatives derive more than half their income from the very sector that has pushed the economy to the point of collapse"

More to the point, the government derives a large chunk of its income from the City. One of Gordon's reasons for letting the City rip in the Blair years was that Labour could spend the increased revenue on all sorts of social schemes to solve society's problems.

Like Hoover, I agree that IDS is actually trying to do the right thing i.e. what Blair could and should have done in 1998. Only in 1998 there were actually jobs to go to...

But whether the execution will be up to it ...



"But if I go to the doctor with an ailment, the doctor doesn't need to have had the same illness if he's to cure me"

Poor analogy. Here are some more... reductio ad absurdum

"So all the Northern Ireland police are Protestant.. so what they can still chase burglars. You're a sectarian for demanding more Catholics!"

"So what if all the MPs are men, they've all got mothers and most of them are married to women. You don't have to be a women to know about womens issues. Anyway we are all equal. Are women more equal that we have to make quota for them?"

"So what if all the judges went to public school? It's about the law not your attitude to other people"

Actually there is nothing wrong with any single person going to any particular school. It is when a huge swathe of the cabinet all went to a single school that you have a problem.

The notion that they are there either randomly or via a meritocracy is laughable. And the idea that their politics does not align closely with their class interests and prejudices is also unsustainable after a moments pause.


"It is when a huge swathe of the cabinet all went to a single school that you have a problem."

That would be the École nationale d'administration, right?


A privileged background clearly does not disqualify you from being able to sincerely represent the less privileged, but it does mean you are vulnerable to misunderstanding and therefore misrepresentation.

In an ideological climate that insists that poverty is the outward symptom of moral failing, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that there is no smoke without fire and that the poor may be partially to blame for their predicament, an attitude that is common across the neoliberal spectrum. Experience of "real, existing" poverty is shocking precisely because it shows itself to be arbitrary and unforgiving.

You are right that the trope of MPs needing to be "more engaged" and "in touch with ordinary people" is heavily infected with the PR obsession with pseudo-authenticity, however a more base (and ironic) motive is simple contempt for democracy, the Coriolanus syndrome: the mob are fools and we must lower ourselves to their level to secure their votes.

I should note in passing that Metatone's crack about "innumerate Oxbridge classicists" perpetuates another ideological trope, the opposition between (aristocratic) moral values and (vulgar) empiricism. Real classicists (as opposed to caricatures like Boris Johnson) cleave more to the empirical than the moral, more Thucydides than Herodotus.


I generally agree with the idea that background isn't always important - it's perhaps a symptom of the problems more than its cause. But I don't think the argument that Attlee etc were public schoolboys, and yet they contributed to a left-wing government, really helps. Lord Sumption used something similar recently: all-white, all-male panels of judges passed judgments that helped equal rights, therefore we shouldn't worry about the demographic make-up of top judges. But the reason all-white, all-male panels of judges made those judgments is because those were the only type of judges we had at that time. Eventually, those decisions were going to be taken, and the chances are they'd be made by those people; but who knows if they would have been taken more speedily by a more diverse bench.


Been there, done that, served on the frontline - unlike my bourgeois Generals who know nothing. Hitler, shortly before the turning point that was Stalingrad.

Frank H Little

Doctors deal with sick people most days of their working life. I don't know about Dalton & Cripps, but Attlee worked in the poor communities of the East End of London (http://www.attlee.org.uk/about-us/) before and after his military service. Too many members in comfortable constituencies don't have even this second-hand experience of deprivation, let alone first-hand.


Nadine Dorries does not represent ordinary people only a certain type of bone headed reactionary. She might represent some working class tories but they only constitute some of the working class. Cameron et al have less excuse for being tory as they are better educated so we are told. But then the un stated assumption about education and knowledge is that they can be neutral with respect to class. That assumption is very moot. Marx liked to call his ideas Scientific socialism for a reason. He rejected other interpretations of society and the policies following from them as not knowledge based. Class based Education is education for social ignorance.

As for the Cabinet having policies to help the poor you are having a laugh. All their policies are to impoverish the sick, and disabled and unemployed and increase deprivation by cuts and more cuts. Please stop lying. As for improving eduction ! Meaningless nostalgia based propaganda about grammar schools and old fashioned spelling do not constitute an effective education policy.

Ian M

If one cannot be motivated/idealised to deal with poverty without having directly experienced it, then surely one cannot be motivated/idealised to deal with corruption and self-interest (in, say, the major social financial and political institutions) without directly experienced that either?
How would politicians drawn from true poor and/or working class backgrounds deal with those problems if this is the case?
True, a direct significant experience of any kind of abhorrence can be a powerful motivator. And that still doesn't make it a necessary factor for motivation.


I once went to a doctor who didn't understand how painful my problem was - as a result, her diagnosis was accurate, but her prescription was inadequate and her 'bedside' manner was terrible. If our politicians had experienced poverty, perhaps their prescriptions and bedside manners would improve.

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