What kind of 'friends' should a Prime Minister have to dinner?
I'm not a great fan (to say the least) of the soft skinned millionaires who seem to make up a good proportion of the cabinet. And, true or not, the idea that Peter Cruddas could have even implied that he was able to broker a "cash for dinner with the prime minister" deal seems to me somewhere between outrageous, pathetic and grubbily laughable.
But who do we think that David Cameron and his family should hang out with? If not those who have paid to share a "kitchen supper", then who? Well, we dont like much like it when they are his rich "real friends" -- no less rich, for the most part, than the "cash for dinner" people, but not actually having bought the meal ticket.
We don't like that much more than the supposed Cruddas contacts, because we know that who you spend time with (or who your kids or your wife spend time with) inevitably -- even if indirectly -- influence the way you think, what you deem important, and how your priorities are weighed up. If you mix with the toffs, you'll think with the toffs -- so the logic goes.
We could, I guess, have a lottery to send some randomly selected citizens round to the Camerons to play with the kids and share the pasta with Dave and Sam, a kind of social focus group. But more often than not we tend to talk as if the Prime Minister and the cabinet colleagues would be better off if they didn't have any friends at all. They would solve the problem of undue influence at a stroke.
At that point, of course, the objections would pour in from the other side. How could the Prime Minister know what is going on in the country for the rest of us, if he's completely cut off from the real world etc.
Remember the trouble that Tony Blair got into years ago when it turned out that he had no clue that GPs were skewing their "appointment target" times by not letting people book appointments more than 24 hours in advance anyway -- something that anyone in the country who used an NHS GP could have told him over a fireside chat.
(It's the kind of isolation of power conjured up nicely by Christoph Ransmayr in his novel about Ovid, The Last World: his Emperor Augustus sits alone in the palace mesmerised by a pet rhinoceros and not having a clue what was going on outside the palace walls.)
I find myself thinking that, in the end, it may not matter too much who the guy hangs out with, so long as he hangs out with someone he gets on with and has the intelligence and training to be able to spot the influences that he's under. It comes down to education, in other words -- and having learned to be a bit self-aware.
That's where an interview on the Today programme on Saturday rang some alarm bells. It was a discussion between Jack Straw and Michael Portillo about the question of the week: whether, and why, politicians are 'out of touch'. Now, by and large, both these guys say much more sensible things than they used to when they were in power with their respective parties (which itself says something about the constraints on the rhetoric of those in government). But yesterday one of them (can't remember which) said that one of the problems was that, whatever their backgrounds, most front bench politicians had been elite educated -- so no wonder they were a bit out of touch with ordinary mortals.
But isn't that exactly the reverse of how it should be -- and is? If you count my students as elite educated (as I guess you must), then I am pretty confident that their education makes them more not less aware of their their own particular prejudices, and makes them better at communicating widely, not worse.
Among other things, we're trying to teach these students about the arbitrariness and symbolic power of cultural difference, and its relationship to political discourse and community. I don't think any of them would have made the mistake of going on to the nation about the jerry cans in their garages.