David Cameron is currently trying to work out what his position on jumpers is after Number 10 was forced to issue an amazing clarification this afternoon. A spokesman said:
‘To be clear, it is entirely false to suggest the PM would advise people they should wear jumpers to stay warm. Any suggestion to the contrary is mischief-making. The Prime Minister would point people to a range of things being done to help people with their fuel bills, such as legislating to put everyone on the best tariff for them. He believes Labour’s “price freeze” policy is a con – and certainly would not advise people on what they should wear.’
This is considerably less sensible than the original briefing by a Downing Street spokesman this morning, who, when asked what the Prime Minister made of advice to older people to wear warm clothing, said:
‘That’s not a question I have asked him, but clearly he’s not going to prescribe the actions individuals should take but if people are giving advice that is something they may wish to consider.’
Of course there’s nothing wrong with advising people to wear warm clothing when it is rather cold. The problem isn’t so much the advice, but who it comes from. Politicians have this amusing habit of tripping themselves up by assuming that as well as having authority to make laws on our behalf for the benefit of the country, they also have some kind of moral authority and wisdom that we’re all desperate to lap up. They end up telling us to wrap up warm, or giving companies lectures about their moral duties to pay more than they legally have to in tax, rather than changing the law itself. Jo Swinson (her of the pregnancy seat row) recently suggested that parents should think twice before telling their daughters they are pretty to prevent them wrapping their entire self-esteem up in their looks. Cameron, as well as not being at all sure about jumpers, has been ‘disappointed’ in the past few days to hear that British Gas is raising its energy prices.
But why should politicians have any moral authority to even use the word ‘should’? We don’t tend to elect them as arbiters or our morality, even when they do plaster their election leaflets with pictures of wives they may or may not ditch once polling day is over.
A more interesting example than jumpers is on two front pages today: the Telegraph and the Mail. Jeremy Hunt is suggesting that families should delay putting older relatives into care homes and instead following the pattern in Asian countries where families look after their elderly in their own homes. Sound advice, and one most who think the family is one of the most important elements in society would agree with. But even as he’s delivering the speech, the minister’s aides are insisting that this isn’t Hunt telling families what the best thing to do is. Why are they nervous about this distinction? Well, perhaps it’s because there’s something a bit jarring about a minister saying the word ‘should’. Besides, there are already plenty of disincentives in this country to not ditch your parents in a care home: the cost being a major one. If a politician’s real job when it comes to human behaviour is to set policy which encourages one choice over the other, then Hunt might think policymakers have got it about right given the cost of care is so sky-high that it should put people off finding a home for an elderly relative. The reality is, though, that society has become so atomised that care homes are needed, and ones that really do care for their inhabitants, which forms the bulk of Hunt’s speech.
Both Hunt’s aides and Number 10 were nervous about answering the question of what people should do, whether it be with their jumpers or their elderly relatives. This is partly because the government is afraid of seeming out of touch with ordinary people. But Number 10′s real mistake was to answer the question at all. Next time a ‘should’ question comes up, any spokesman should keep schtum.Tags: David Cameron, Energy prices, Jeremy Hunt, Jo Swinson, UK politics