Most days of my professional life, I ponder the importance of coherence. That's because the concept has a very technical meaning - it has a life that escapes the bounds of its common English usage. Essentially, to be coherent means to make statements of induction ('What can I say about the Universe, based on these data in front of me?") which obey the calculus of probability. That probably sounds uncontroversial but in fact the dominant school of statistical inference resolutely refuses to obey what, for me, is one of only two laws of inference worth bothering about. Everything I subscribe to, in my working life, follows from obedience to a desire for coherent induction.
Well, and life would be dull indeed if it followed consistent patterns, no? Which is why Alice Miles' article in the Times this morning annoyed me a little. Ms Miles' view is that Tory policy is 'incoherent', a claim which she substantiates by saying that the Tories may increase spending on Health, but not on Education. Ms Miles' view, if I've understood her argument correctly, is that spending should increase on Education, but perhaps not on Health.
An original claim to coherent reasoning, but not one I wish to dwell on further. Instead I want to thank Ms Miles for helping me put my finger on what has been irritating me about lots of Tory coverage for some time. 'What are your precise plans?', Mr Cameron is asked, endlessly. 'Will you cut x% from budget y in department z? Or z% from budget x in department y? or both? or, like, neither?'. I don't find this a particularly productive line of questioning, not least because Mr Cameron isn't fool enough to provide any hostages to fortune. More, though, it's because these questions are just surrogates, taking the place of the question which perhaps the interviewer isn't even conscious of wishing to ask: What Sort Of Ideology Will Drive A Cameron Government? I solidly hope that the answer to this question is 'None'. More than that. I positively desire David Cameron's government to be incoherent.
Coherence, you see, is the natural consequence of an ideology, and in politics it is rarely A Good Thing. Since an ideologue has a rule book, a device which he or she believes is a perfect description of the rules which govern man's interactions with man, he or she need almost never make any contradictory statements. This follows with probability nearly one, because all political thought will flow from the axioms of the ideology machine.
Grasp this and you can understand the internal coherence of the Labour government, even when to external observers its actions appear (politically) insane, even when empirical facts are produced which would appear to contradict the sense of a policy - Tax Credit fiasco, Connecting For Health fiasco, 10p Tax Rate fiasco, Immigration Policy fiasco, etc. All these political devices flow from the ideological rule book which says something like The best way to cure poverty [for example] is to take control from the centre. A machine to govern income/tax will be created and deployed. It is designed at the centre to have the best interests of The People at heart. Therefore it will work. On average.
Do you see the problem? Thousands of families are grasped in the pincers of Tax Credit Machine. Their pain is real and palpable. But if you subscribe to the ideology which invented Tax Credit Machine, it would be incoherent for you to admit that the real pain suffered by real people was a consequence of your machine. You would have to admit to a problem with your ideological appoach. So you stick with the policy - even when this leads to mutually contradictory statements ('Islamophobia' and 'homophobia', for example, are made-up words designed to cover the ideologue's incoherent championing of gay 'rights' and Islamist self-expression. The non-ideologue would say Wouldn't it be great if people just, like, tried harder to get on with one another?).
For this reason, I hope very much that David Cameron eschews any subscription to any overt political theology. It is not very sexy to say I want to be governed by men and women of palpable decency who will suggest practical solutions to the many problems which modern life will throw in the country's way, even when some of their solutions to real problems ("public spending must be reduced") may be in intellectual conflict with their solutions to other real problems ("we want to spend more on health"). But it's true, nonetheless.
I have a memory, a fluttering from the recess of the past, that in this I am echoing the words of a character in an Alasdair Grey novel of more than two decades ago. I hope it's from Lanark but I suspect it might the The Fall of Kelvin Walker. (As it happens, there's a quotation in Lanark which sums up my swimming-pool theory of localism as the progenitor of civic virtue: It is plain that the vaster the social unit, the less possible is true democracy. That's more than enough ideology for me.) As Alasdair Grey himself often remarks: Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation. That's enough. Leave theology to the religious, and ideology to the left. And leave coherence to mathematics. Politics is for humans.