When leaders are silent, the absence of noise may be revealing. David Cameron and Gordon Brown remain remarkably quiet over the Postal Dispute. This week, their silence extended to the climate change protests at Heathrow
As the great Sherlock Holmes taught us, the hardest thing to see is what is missing from a story. One of the functions of the Press is to point to the gaps, the spaces between words. To drag a response out of politicians, for example.
I mentioned in an earlier post a lack of contribution from our political leaders into the on-going postal dispute . The Prime Minister may indeed have been attending to a host of urgent issues over the last two months. That might just explain it. He can’t be expected to speak out on everything. But what about his ministers? Isn’t that a more surprising silence?
Then there’s David Cameron. Why hasn’t he pointed out that Gordon Brown has been guilty of inaction over the dispute? And why has Ming Campbell been so silent, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats?
The silence of our political leaders this week has extended to story of the protestors against the third runway at Heathrow. Which, inevitably is also about political policy over global warming.
Leaders have to choose where to stand and fight
There can be little doubt that Brown and Campbell have thought about and discussed the Postal Strike, and the events this week around the perimeter of Heathrow Airport. For whatever reasons, they have made deliberate decisions to say nothing. Silence is significant.
The press has shown minimal interest in the first of these stories. But it was for its duration particularly interested in the second. A Daily Telegraph piece about the protest resulted in as many on-line replies I have ever come across in reply to a news story.
What happens next? One day after the protests, the story is off the news agenda. Try finding follow-up reports after the one-week protest ended on Sunday August 19th 2007. The most comprehensive account I could find appeared in The Guardian in a slightly truncated form of the blog by environmental activist George Monbiot.
This week, David Cameron chose to target possible closures of local hospitals. Ming Campbell was busily drawing attention to the tricky matter of troop withdrawals from Iraq. David and Ming have chosen where they wish to fight for the moment. Gordon Brown keeps his powder dry, and his position secure, garrisoning his political forces behind the barricades of impressive opinion polls of recent weeks.
What conclusions can we draw?
If we shift the military metaphor to that of a military game, the chess concept of Zugswang comes to mind. In chess it sometimes is worse for you if you have to move, better if you your opponent has to move. It’s like meeting another car in a narrow lane without passing spots. Someone has to reverse out of there. If that retreat is not acceptable to either, you have a stalemate or no result.
The point is, each player is reluctant to move. But in chess the rules of the game force one player to move or forfeit the game. A player in Zugswang moves, and if the opponent knows how to continue, there is a forced win (or more subtly a forced weakening of position).
The lack of action on either side suggests there is a zugswang-type position building up. Cameron watches Brown. Brown watches Cameron. Neither can find a satisfactory active move. Tick follows Tock follows tick.
Why might this be so? The specific contexts of the two examples have to be explored more deeply. The outlook for the Post Office Union looks bleak. Mr Brown seems have accepted the broad strategy position for its modernization developed under the Blair regime. Either that, or he may be biding his time before making an intervention. Cameron wishes above all to secure the moderate political ground, but it requires a leap of imagination that I for one am incapable of making, to find a way in which he could offer strong support in favour of the Union position. There are too many ways in which the stance could be claimed to be anti-progressive.
However, the Heathrow protest is rather different. Mr Cameron would like to be seen as a strong supporter of environmental causes. In this case, it could be seen as a progressive move to find some common cause against the Government’s transport policy. His advisors will be assessing the significance of the volume and tenor of responses to the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above.
According to Monbiot
We haven’t prevented runaway climate change by camping beside Heathrow and surrounding the offices of BAA, nor did we expect to do so. But we have made it harder for … unheard people to be swept aside, and harder for the government to forget that its plan for perpetual growth in corporate utopia is also a plan for the destruction of life on earth
He may well be on to something.
With grateful of acknowledgement for the image Silence of the lambs from Flickr. by Victoriano Great photograph.