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Radio review: Political Thinking and The Kindness Test

10 September 2021


Tom Tugendhat MP speaks in the Commons on the situation in Afghanistan, last month. He was interviewed by Nick Robinson on Political Thinking (Radio 4, Saturday)

Tom Tugendhat MP speaks in the Commons on the situation in Afghanistan, last month. He was interviewed by Nick Robinson on Political Thinking (Radio 4...

“ONCE, I shouted ‘Come!’ and they came. . . Now, I just shout like a voice in the wilderness.” Such is the condition of the officer turned back-bench Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, as expressed to Nick Robinson on Political Thinking (Radio 4, Saturday).

Despite his position as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mr Tugendhat is impotent when it comes to helping former comrades as they desperately seek a way out of Afghanistan. For Britain and the United States, leaving the country has seemed much easier than it is for the individuals who now regularly contact Mr Tugendhat asking in vain for his intervention.

Robinson bills these interviews as “conversations” rather than “interrogations”; a style that suited his guest, since Mr Tugendhat does authenticity very effectively, not least during the Commons debate on Afghanistan, in which he talked of his “anger, grief, and rage” at the British withdrawal.

He is particularly angry, it seems, with the civil service. The fact that the relevant Permanent Under Secretary, Sir Philip Barton, failed to return from holiday during the crisis bothers him far more than the absence of his colleague, Dominic Raab. Is that because he is keen not to alienate potential future allies? But on his political ambitions he was not to be drawn.

It was an impressive performance, and yet some will harbour doubts that he is too close to his subject. Against this criticism, he argued that we must all necessarily be close to the stuff of politics; for, whether it be education, the NHS, or security, it affects us all. The argument would land well with Jennifer Nadel, the director of Compassion in Politics and a contributor to The Kindness Test (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), in which we heard about a new, questionnaire-based study of what motivates us to be kind.

The study, for which this programme was effectively an extended sales pitch, follows on from similar projects run by the BBC in association with university academics, including one on loneliness. The challenges of establishing secure methodological footholds in subjects such as these are manifold; and, while an understanding of loneliness might result in actionable social policies, it is hard to see exactly what lessons we might learn here, except that we should try a little harder to be nice to one another.

The programme tried its best to locate the research in a tradition of psychological studies of emotion, although kindness must surely be conceptualised primarily in terms of action rather than feeling; and, in so far as the questionnaire is apparently itself a learning experience, the Kindness Test is perhaps best described as public engagement posing as research — which itself has laudable precedent.

One yearned, however, for some sceptical thinking about the notion of kindness, and the representations made of it in this programme. It seemed inevitable that, at some point, we were going to hear a paean to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who is, to many, the patron saint of kindness in politics. Yet there are many in the anti-lockdown lobby who would argue that her particular skill is to affect kindness in order to be cruel.

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