We can all be seduced by a grand promise. Perhaps part of the allure of a great visionary statement is that we salute the challenge and the daring the promise holds. A new relationship or a big venture needs this boldness. A true leader displaces our scepticism and taps into our sense of awe at the level of conviction they hold in the bold vision. This conviction can at times be addictive. The receptive audience now wants to go on the journey that has been captured for us in images and words. David Cameron, on his election as Conservative party leader in December 2005, made such a promise. His was to end “Punch and Judy” politics. Cameron in his victory speech, acknowledged the colleagues he beat to the leader’s job, set the tone for his leadership, and said:
“And we need to change, and we will change, the way we behave. I'm fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing.”
Many of the promises Cameron made were of course political ones. We all differ in our views politically, giving different priorities to different things. That is part of the rich tapestry of being human. Fortunately, we don’t need to go into the shivering divide of political questions now. The “Punch and Judy” promise is not political. This promise is behavioural, it transcends politics and speaks to a desire we all have for a less confrontational world. The idea that our leaders might show leadership in how we achieve this is a very attractive one.
So how have things changed? Nearly five years later, in May 2010, Cameron became Prime Minister, after the 2010 General Election. In April 2014, just under four years after becoming PM and getting on for 9 years after being elected leader of his party, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland faced Ed Milliband, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in the United Kingdom at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons. The subject that day was the flotation of the Royal Mail on the stock market. Ed Milliband’s words of choice on that financially challenging occasion were that the PM was “not so much the Wolf of Wall Street” as the “dunce of Downing Street”. How did change maker Cameron respond? PM Cameron’s response was that he would not take lectures from Milliband and Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and went on to brand Ed and Ed “the two Muppets”. Cameron refered to the pair’s advice to former PM, Gordon Brown when he sold a large part of the country’s gold reserves. The jousting carried on in that vein.
This is bad but it gets worse. The reported words of what has been said in the House of Commons do not do justice to what actually seeing and hearing these type of exchanges allows us to experience. This is the land’s more important debating chamber, carried on under the behest of HM the Queen herself, and yet the exchanges are of an altogether more base, tribal nature. It is a place where sides still face each other in traditional two-party confrontation. Unlike chambers in many other countries that are arranged at angles to a central staged point, it does not give much of a stage at all to allow considered shared ideas to develop and grow. The tone and voice of the exchanges are cluttered with supporting cries and challenging jeers that provide an under-swelling sea that supports the quick point scorer in his backbiting riposte. To achieve change in such a place is no easy task.
So how do we end up at this point? The leaders of the UK’s traditional two major political parties have both said that they would like to end this style of confrontation. Even the day-to-day organiser of this particular kid’s party, the Speaker of the House has vowed to end the “yobbery and public school twittishness” and yet it continues. In practice our political leaders are simply failing to make these changes. If then the evidence is of a strong desire to change coupled with the gross failure to make that change then there is something we are clearly missing. Perhaps if there is a conceit here, it is simply to believe the vision, that such a difficult shift, involving behavioural change could ever be achieved using the same methods by which we achieve more straightforward changes. Changing ingrained attitudes and behaviours is much harder than simply learning a new skill. This is not a problem unique to the politicians; it is something we all face when we try to improve the various negotiations our lives and communicate better.
Our first interviewee, Mr Punch is himself a curious character. Punch is a Paradox, unwittingly but rightly chosen, because his story holds many clues....