Educating parliamentarians – A crash course in critical thinking?

Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, gave an interview to the Independent in which he talked about the need for parliamentarians to understand science and technology.  A fair point, parliament is stuffed with party hacks, lawyers and PR people who don’t have much real world experience and very few have ever had responsibility for running a Profit and Loss account.  He goes so far as to suggest the need for basic training in scientific principles for new parliamentarians.  Understandably it’s caused a bit of a fuss, “how very dare he”…

While he has a reasonable position to take I disagree with his recommendation.

For me this raises issues around the principle by which we elect our representatives.  There are a very limited set pre-requisites, in addition to the ability to pay the fees, for an individual to become a candidate for parliament.  From there on success is at the whim of an electorate, and they’ll base that on many things; tribal affiliations, local engagement, national issues, personality, protest or the pure electoral numbers game.  The result of that is a parliament which, in principle, will have a people with all kinds of backgrounds and educational levels.   In practice that’s heavily skewed by the candidate screening and training process of the three main parties, as well as a culture driving towards parliamentarians having lived blame free existences and not expressing any non-party opinions.  It’s fair to say that some parliamentarians probably aren’t well equipped to deal with complex policy issues, although they may be very conscientious and effective constituency representatives and case-workers.  Equally some of the brightest may be very reliant on their local teams to take up the slack of their casework.

In a democratic system we have to acknowledge that sometimes the outcomes will result in people elected to parliament, or indeed any tier of government, that one wouldn’t trust to walk a dog.

As an engineer I do lean towards the argument that policy making should be evidence based and subjected to critical analysis, but equally there are other factors that come into play when dreaming up legislation.  Should we not also expect parliamentarians to undertake training in economics, management of change, principles of education, defence and international relations, service management and delivery?

There is an argument that we could spend the first two years of any parliament training up the new MPs, and from a libertarian perspective that would seem to be quite attractive as it would keep them away from parliament and unable to interfere with the lives of the electorate.  Clearly that undermines why they’re there, so moves towards an argument that aspiring politicians should undergo this training before they run for election.  This undermines the principle that pretty much anyone can run for election and presents yet another barrier to entry.

There is also the consideration that regardless of how well one is educated in a particular topic one may base decisions on other things, some of which may be inexplicable.  People don’t always make decisions in predictable, or even consistent, ways.

This also touches on one of the Lib Dem policy pledges made prior to the election this year following the sacking of Prof David Nutt for the crime of pointing out that the Home Secretary was making policy decisions that were contrary to the scientific evidence.  We pledged that policy decisions would follow the scientific advice.  At the time I felt that this was a mistake, and I continue to do so.  Policy decisions are political in nature, they need to reflect both evidence and a recognition of how they will work in practice.  There are many examples of knee jerk policy making with pretty negative unintended consequences.  There is an argument for legislation to have a business case attached to it, exploring the costs, benefits and disbenefits, risks and consequences.  But scientific evidence is only one part of that picture.

So we could do with better, more effective, parliamentarians.  Perhaps then we’d have less ill thought through legislation.  Unfortunately a crash course in science isn’t going to achieve that.

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