BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day led by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Good morning. The Slovaks have just elected a president with no political experience. The Ukrainians look like they’re about to. America did so recently; so did the French.
It’s quite normal for interviewers to expect that we have experience as well as skills and good character to be eligible for a job. But experience isn’t always a perfect preparation. When a person’s CV says they ran their own business for 9 months, you’re bound to wonder why they’re not still doing so. Experience is usually an asset – but not always.
So what’s the problem with a politician who has no experience? Well, they might have little idea how to use the power at their disposal. They might make poor judgements about whose advice to take. But experienced politicians are criticised for precisely these things.
When I was a child I loved the chocolate game. When you rolled a six, you put on hat, gloves, and scarf, and tried to chop up a bar of chocolate, and eat as much of it as you could, until another player rolled a six. For me, this represents a naïve notion of politics – you decree and legislate your agenda as fast as you can, until you’re inevitably kicked out. A novice politician might be under the illusion that they get permission to visit their principles on the population in the same way.
I don’t think that’s what politics is. I see politics as building coalitions of interest, where no one gets everything they want, but everyone gets enough. Groucho Marx said, ‘These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others.’ It’s a joke, but it points to a truth about politics: if you drive through your principles, you’re only storing up resentment for a backlash once it’s someone else’s turn in the chocolate game.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me.’ But in Mark’s gospel he says, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’ At the least, these apparently contradictory statements evidence a lively debate in the early church about pragmatism and principle.
A friend of mine did a survey in his company about who got the highest salary ten years after being hired. It turned out what mattered was not your starting salary, or university degree, but the ability to build a team and take people with you.
Religion started getting a bad name in the seventeenth century precisely because people of faith seemed so unwilling to compromise. Turns out, without religion, people haven’t become a whole lot more willing. Compromise remains the hardest part of politics, be it national, local, or domestic. In the end politics only works once we realise we won’t get there unless we all get there.