Voltaire was a superb polemicist but a cheat in debate. He never laid a finger on the Christian argument which in Candide he mocked as claiming that ‘all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’. He showed that the world was a dreadful place. In a sparkling and brutal parody he demonstrated that life was cruel and unjust, and that millions of people were wretched. He scorned the idea that there was anything remotely pleasant about the world which Christians claimed God had made as pleasant as possible for us.
But the argument Voltaire parodies never did include the claim he mocked. He tilted brilliantly at the supposition that life was sweet, but Catholic theologians had never claimed life was sweet. They had confronted the awkward facts that (a) God is omnipotent; (b) God must surely aim to perfect His world; yet (c) sin, misery and natural disaster are all around us; and asked how (a), (b) and (c) could all be true?
Their answer remains the only one available to believers. If one starts from the premise that God has made for us the best world He can, and if that world contains, nevertheless, misery, catastrophe and tragedy, then one has to conclude that such horrors are a necessary part of even the best world imaginable. This is as good as it gets.
Pace Voltaire, this argument is not preposterous. To take two key examples (whether or not one believes in a benevolent deity), if humans are to be endowed with free will, then they must be able to make the wrong choices; and if they are to have the opportunity to surmount tragedy in life, then there must be tragedy in life. It is, in short, entirely possible that the world around us should be perfectly bloody, but that no better world can be constructed.
I thought of this as I read a challenging column by Martin Kettle in the Guardian last week. Asking his readers whether today’s Britain might hear on the 21st-century wind some echo from that devastating 20th-century Tory campaign slogan ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, Mr Kettle cantered through a dismaying checklist of New Labour priorities and promises.
No need to rehearse or add to them here. Suffice it to say that in health, education, poverty, transport, family policy and a range of other matters, Labour is failing today to make a convincing case that serious headway is being made in getting better value for taxpayers’ money, or improving national outcomes. Mr Kettle is surely right. Ministers do now struggle to make that case. Claims of ‘transformation’ ring hollow. New Labour talk of ‘breakthrough’ and ‘reform’ is less than candid.
Back, then, to Candide. Might this not be the best possible of all Britains, nevertheless? Might it not be the case both that (a) Labour isn’t working; and (b) the present governance of the United Kingdom is just about as good as it could be?
Here is a proposition as unwelcome to Tony Blair’s propagandists as it is to Tory or Liberal Democrat communicators. What if there simply is no affordable solution to Britain’s health problems? What if demands for medical treatment will always outrun the state’s capability to provide it without charge?
What if schools, appalling as they are, are about as good as they can get for the money we are prepared to spend on them? What if nobody has thought of a way to have grammar schools without secondary modern schools? What if some candidates cannot pass unless others fail? What if the advantage conferred by a university degree diminishes as the proportion of the population which has gained a degree increases?
What if no formula exists which will both inspire those of working age to save for retirement, and rescue from poverty the elderly who have not done so? What if we cannot have cheap and rapid transport within the reach of all, and an environmentally friendly transport policy too?
What if it is impossible to marry social freedom, relaxed licensing laws, and neighbourhoods where silence reigns after 11 p.m.? What if it is not possible to promote local autonomy without aggravating the inequalities of provision that the media call a ‘postcode lottery’? What if there is no way of ‘targeting need’ without creating a ‘poverty trap’? What if we cannot ‘celebrate diversity’ at the same time as ‘championing equality’ and ‘standing up for our values’?
What if it proves beyond human wit to reconcile an ‘ethical foreign policy’ designed to rescue the world’s oppressed or persecuted peoples with respect for the sovereignty of other nations? What if we find no way to be both at the heart of Europe, ‘never isolated in Europe’, while still standing up for what we think is best for Europe when partners disagree?
What if we cannot pursue an ambition to provide cheap and affordable housing for all, while respecting the Green Belt as sacrosanct? What if we cannot keep taxes down and public spending up? What, in short, if the pressures of democracy impel politicians towards promises to reconcile the irreconcilable?
May I leave you with a passage to mull over? It seems to me to represent an apogee of a kind — the sort of compassless thrashing-around in a brier of thought and verbiage to which, with no big answers or new ideas left, modern politicians are reduced. In the verbatim transcript which follows, the Work and Pensions Secretary (David Blunkett) was answering Jonathan Dimbleby last week. What question he is answering, or what his answer means, I cannot suppose historians will care:
‘Well, I think the welfare state proposals in a few weeks’ time will be but the major thing I’m also concentrating on in terms of alleviating long-term poverty rather than ameliorating it …and I’m going to bring forward proposals which will reform and review the social fund which is the loans, we’ve got £210 million extra going into budgeting loans from next April, from next April, I’m going to double the disregard for the capital that people have been able to build up so that if they do take on the possibility of a little bit of money aside, they don’t get clobbered so heavily by it and above all, we’re going to put a £36-million programme, this has not been announced before, from next April, which will work with credit unions, with what’s called third-sector lenders….’
Are you familiar with what is dubbed ‘the pistachio-nut effect’ in social provision? The comparison is with a bowl of pistachio nuts on a cocktail bar. As crackable nuts are selected, cracked and eliminated, the proportion of uncrackable shells left in the bowl increases until it approaches (though seldom quite reaches) 100 per cent of available nuts.
Maybe we’ve cracked an increasing proportion of the obviously crackable problems in human affairs — or, at least, those crackable by government? Maybe 21st-century politicians are left staring at a bowl of conundrums still there precisely because they are conundrums? Maybe the stuff of modern politics is a kind of residue — stubborn stains that won’t shift? Maybe Mr Blair’s cardinal sin is — and is only — to have promised to deliver the undeliverable? Maybe this is as good as it gets?
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.