Thursday, 25 September 2008

What's wrong with being wrong?

Once, but only once, I heard someone say "I am never wrong" and mean it. He was the father of a boy in my class at primary school and you could never meet a more ignorant man in your life. Nothing about his existence gave rise to praise. He was uneducated, rude and vulgar, beat his wife and treated his children like slaves, indeed beat his children and treated his wife like a slave. Because I knew one of his sons I encountered him occasionally and learned how lucky I was to have my parents as parents rather than a pig-headed fool like him. More than anything else it was his "I am never wrong" comment that affected me because it was said in answer to a question my friend asked him. "What's the capital of America Dad?" "New York". My friend's mother chipped in with "I think it's Washington" and the look from husband to wife was a mixture of fear and hatred. Fear that his dominance would be challenged and hatred of being exposed as an ignoramus. Had I not been there she would have got another beating, maybe she did after I went home. "It's New York" he snarled "I'm never wrong."

That memory sticks in my mind because I knew he was wrong. In those days children of eight or nine learned the major capital cities. And I could not believe that someone who was wrong could assert with a threatening swagger that he was right. In our house a question asked of either parent might be answered with assurance but if the answer was questioned someone got out the encyclopaedia and we all read the relevant entry. There was no shame in being wrong, instead there was delight in being able to discard ignorance and replace it with fact.

We all make mistakes, some factual and some of judgment. We learn and improve by being corrected. For reasons I do not understand, being wrong is now seen in some quarters as shameful.

Apprenticeships for skilled jobs like bricklaying and plumbing used to take five or seven years. No more than half that time was concerned with teaching the technical skills, the rest was about how to correct your mistakes. The apprentices were not being patronised by being told they will make mistakes, they were being taught a vital lesson in life. If you make a mistake which affects someone else you need to know how to put things right. It's far easier to walk away from an error than to face it and correct it, but when your livelihood depends on the outcome of your work a failure to put things right will disqualify you from future employment. What will not only disqualify you from future employment but lead to a claim for compensation is a stubborn refusal to admit that anything is wrong, even when the brick wall falls down or the new pipework leaks as soon as the water supply is turned on.

Judges make mistakes. That is why we have a Court of Appeal. The judges who have their decisions overturned all have great experience in the law. I came across a couple of duffers who simply weren't up to it, but only a couple. The vast majority have many years of successful practice behind them and work with great dedication to decide cases as fairly as they can, yet still their decisions are overturned. It does not make them incompetent it just illustrates that, like everyone else, they make mistakes. Judges in the Court of Appeal get things wrong and are overturned by the Law Lords sitting in our highest court. Even the Law Lords occasionally get something wrong and have to reverse one of their previous decisions. This must be put in context. They are people of staggering intellectual ability and vast experience and still sometimes their judgment is at fault. There is nothing wrong with that, it is all part of the advancement of learning.

In my junior years in the law I sometimes wondered how judges coped with having a decision overturned by the Court of Appeal. As I got older and had personal friends who were judges I found out from the horse's mouth. They don't like it but they also hear appeals from lower courts and sometimes overturn those decisions. They know it is not a personal insult, it is just an aspect of ordinary life. We all make mistakes. They go to court again the next day, learn from what the Court of Appeal said and continue doing the best they can.

Too many politicians think it necessary to defend bad decisions long after they have been proved to be bad. They think it would be a sign of weakness if they did otherwise. How wrong they are. Admitting errors and taking the necessary steps to correct them is a sign of strength not a sign of weakness.

Margaret Thatcher was not good at admitting errors, in fact I cannot readily recall her ever doing so. That was a major part of her downfall. John Major admitted the error of entering the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and, having done so, was able to rebuild the economy together Kenneth Clarke as Chancellor. More than once Tony Blair shrugged his shoulders during an interview and admitted a policy mistake, saying it seemed likely to work and having the courage to admit it didn't. Many would say he made far more mistakes he has not acknowledged, and that might well be true, but at least he admitted some.

The present incumbent has never made a mistake in his life, according to him. It is his single greatest weakness. Everything that has gone wrong in the last year has been the fault of someone or something other than Gordon Brown, or so he claims. Credit bubble leading to recession? That's the naughty banks' fault for lending too much money, not his fault for encouraging them to do so and still less his fault for doing exactly the same. Energy crisis? That's the fault of the naughty oil companies, not his fault for spending taxpayers' money on gimmicks rather than power stations.

Not everything wrong in Britain is directly Gordon Brown's fault. Some things are, however, and the longer he denies it the more pitiful he becomes. His speech to the Labour conference yesterday was his final chance to act like a human being. Instead, as his party risks sinking below the political waterline, there was no "yes we got this that and the other wrong, but we have corrected those mistakes by doing these things right" it was all "I got it right all along, trust me". I was reminded of the vile father of my childhood friend. The man who was always right in his own mind was almost always wrong in the real world.

The man who is always right in his own mind is an ignorant bully, always has been and always will be.

1 comment:

Mark Wadsworth said...

That's a fair summary of The Goblin King, but I think you're wrong on judges. From my limited experience they are 75% stupid, ignorant twats. And the other 25% are evil.