We were breakfasting outside on the morning of the Greek referendum. The result could only be guessed at and all the polls were saying it was neck-and-neck. I thought ‘yes’ would win because surely Greek people believe in membership of the EU. Our friend Marie, however, who is French, announced that it would be a decisive ‘no’. Marie is neither a left-winger nor a Europhobe. ‘Why?’ her husband asked, ‘how do you know?’
‘Avantage acquis,’ she said. Few of us were fluent French speakers, but I made a guess: ‘You mean people’s sense of continuing entitlement to something they have already got?’ Yes, she said, such things are very hard to take away. So though we had agreed that the Greek electorate were being obstinate and irrational about hanging on to pensions, perks, jobs and salaries that had been funded by mounting national debt, that (said Marie) was just how most people are. It wasn’t a wrongheadedness peculiar to Greeks. It was the way people — all people — think. There arises in minds and hearts a presumption that what you’ve always had is rightfully yours. Reason alone, however compelling, can be powerless against that instinct. You don’t feel you’re being selfish. Custom, practice and long-standing possession become a moral argument in themselves.
Now in a sense this is obvious, and well-known in politics. That is why our government would never alter the pension age for people already receiving a pension. It is why, when they take away (as eventually they must) some of the silly benefits available to rich pensioners — heating allowances, free public transport, no prescription charges and the like — they will have to announce the change so far in advance that the first cohort to be affected will hardly yet have begun to think those benefits theirs.
It is why, too, when it becomes absolutely unavoidable that an avantage acquis be withdrawn, the group who are singled out must not be not too numerous, or popular, or sympathetically regarded by others. The poll tax withdrew from the great majority of our population their exemption from local taxes. The logic was powerful but the change hit too many people too hard, all at once. I wish I’d realised this at the time.
Why didn’t I? A clue to the answer lay in the composition of the little group of us around that breakfast table last week. Almost all of us were involved in politics or the media.
It struck me as we talked that we were, every one of us, taking a God’s-eye view of issues of rights and responsibilities. We were thinking as judges think: standing back disinterestedly. Unwittingly we had slipped into the mindset of the adjudicator. This created, between us and the vast majority of citizens, a most significant gulf. And I do wonder whether our journalists, commentators and the whole political and administrative class, are fully aware of that gulf? It was keeping us from making accurate estimates about how people — in this case the Greek people — would react. The mindset we needed to adopt was that of the estimator or assessor, not the magistrate.
Fitfully, I think, capable politicians do understand this. Margaret Thatcher did in her earlier years sense the need to reward even undeserving friends, and to pick enemies off patiently, partially in small groups, one by one and when the time was right. She could block her ears to moral logic. It was when she started making grand arguments about what people deserved rather than sly ones about what they expected that her political judgment began to slip.
Media people like myself, however, are less aware than we should be of the extent to which our calling inclines us to become half-assimilated into the political and administrative class we are supposed to be observing. Discussing the generality of our fellow citizens we slide, like politicians, into the language (and mental habit) of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘by rights’ and ‘fairness’. We editorialise. We pronounce when perhaps we would do better to count.
We do, of course — as even MPs and mandarins do — experience life as ordinary citizens. We are subject to tax, the criminal law and traffic regulations. We listen to a Budget statement with the occasional thought as to how a measure might affect us personally. Less often — but occasionally — we do try to put ourselves in the frame of mind of the millions of ‘ordinary’ people we do not know. But time and again our minds return to what we might call the ‘national interest’ — and, there we go again, judging, adjudicating, moralising. Perhaps we think this is high-minded and perhaps it is, but there are circumstances when high-mindedness in a journalist can be almost unprofessional.
Amongst commentators like myself the vice is encouraged by our readers. Our likely audience is stacked against the ‘But how does this affect me?’ tendency and in favour of the ‘What’s best for the country?’ brigade. Our readers tend to be wise citizens who value impartiality, well able to distinguish between their own interests and those of the nation, and who themselves incline to the judicial rather than the pocket-calculator view of politics. Good people, all of you subscribers to The Spectator or the Times — very much my kind of people — and we can fair-mindedly discuss who should get what. We can conclude that the Greeks are being ridiculous; or that people on higher earnings should pay more for social housing; or that the old domestic rating system was manifestly unfair.
But what we cannot do is suppose that our conclusions are of the remotest interest to a struggling Greek innkeeper or a dustman who has always paid a capped rent for his family’s council flat. ‘The Greeks’ are not ‘feckless’. They simply want to hang on to what they’ve got.
Avantage acquis. Had I thought about that, I might have predicted the Greek shock last week.