Fans of The West Wing – and if you aren’t you should be – will know that ten word answers will kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword.
Let’s allow President Bartlet to explain:
As Bartlet says:
“Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? … How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now.”
It could be argued that, in her conference speech on Saturday, Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration that the SNP will oppose UK air strikes on Syria was expressed in more than ten words. She spoke at some length about what hadn’t helped solve problems. She threw out the lazy line that the UN should fix things with an “intensive diplomatic initiative”, as if ISIS was in the least bit interested in finding common ground. But it was essentially a glib line to please an audience which knows war is bad and would very much prefer not to have to think about it.
“Complexity isn’t a vice” says CJ Cregg later in the above clip. But of course, The West Wing is fiction. Few politicians would ever engage with nuance – a hungry press and an angry social media would distort their words and polarise their view within minutes. Sturgeon is a skilled politician, but she isn’t an honest one. An honest politician would stand up and say you know what? There are arguments on both sides. I’m not going to rule out support for UK air strikes. Sometimes us not engaging kills more children, destroys more lives, than us joining the fight.
Nicola is of course in the enviable position of leading a devolved government with no responsibility for defence. So she can take dogmatic decisions and give the appearance of principle without any risk of causing – or failing to prevent – real harm. And she knows too that this is a policy which will help with her single long-term aim – to make Scotland look different enough to the rest of the UK to make independence winnable.
The SNP have good reason to believe this approach will work. After all, Nicola’s predecessor scored a huge popular hit with his declaration that “the rocks will melt with the sun” before he would introduce university tuition fees. And the reality that the SNP’s broader higher education policy is failing to deliver hasn’t dented the popularity of this statement. Populism sells. Complexity doesn’t.
On fracking too, the SNP (and, I’m afraid, Scottish Labour) have plumped for a policy of “Scary Thing Is Bad” and failed to acknowledge the reality that the aim of carbon reduction could be best served by a carefully balanced set of energy policies including some new methods of extraction coupled with investment in carbon capture. At least Labour hasn’t closed the door on new nuclear. Yet.
Back to Syria. I wholeheartedly agree with Nicola Sturgeon when she says we must all “seek a lasting resolution of the conflict and defeat the horror that is ISIS”. But I fundamentally disagree with her and anyone else who thinks we can achieve that by ruling out involvement in air strikes or any other military action. I want to see an end to war, but I am not prepared to buy the fairy tale that says declining to get involved means less suffering.
Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn deserves credit for this statement, agreed between himself and Jeremy Corbyn:
“We have a responsibility to protect people, but in Syria no one has taken responsibility and no one has been protected. It is the great humanitarian crisis of our age and one of our greatest tests too.
The way we take any decision will matter a great deal. MPs and others may disagree about what the right thing to do is, but we must never forget that we have a responsibility both to help the Syrian people and protect British citizens. Deciding to intervene militarily in another country is one of the most serious decisions parliament can make, but equally, nobody should be in any doubt that inaction is also a decision that will have consequences in Syria.”
Too often we forget that peace must be fought for and won; it is not achieved by a glib soundbite on a conference stage. That may not matter to the SNP, focused on an entirely different prize. It may not matter to some voters, who understandably seek the comfort of simple answers and clear principles. But it matters to the millions suffering in Syria and far beyond. And it should matter to us all.