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Do we really have to know it all?

Are we expected always to have the facts at our fingertips? Are we supposed to have thought through all the implications of a particular scenario at the outset? I only ask because I’m wondering what has happened to the phrase ‘I don’t know’.

I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ programme a couple of weeks ago. The Shadow Secretary of State for Energy, Caroline Flint, was being grilled by the presenter, Winifred Robinson, about the punishments that can be imposed on the energy companies for persistent abuse of customers. In the interests of consumers, Winifred was doing her job: she wanted to know whether an energy company’s licence could be revoked by the regulator. And, if so, how long that would take. It all got quite heated at one point. Winifred asked her whether she had got a grip on all the detail or whether it was just bluster in the run up to a general election.

But what raised my hackles was the fact that Ms Flint was supposed to have all the answers. Sure, there will be researchers in the background, she will have been briefed by the civil servants reporting into her and, for all I know, she might have a voice in her ear telling her what she can and can’t say. But she was skirting round the question about whether a licence could be revoked within five years. She referred to the fact that it was the regulator’s decision, not the Government’s. She talked about the moral high ground saying, “…none of the companies has the right to continue [in business] if they aren’t complying with good customer service; they all have obligations to prove their worth and simply paying a fine isn’t the end of the story.” But she couldn’t say explicitly that she didn’t know how long it would take for a licence to be revoked. What a shame.

And it’s true of so many politicians. For some reason, they feel compelled to have an answer to any question. Be it a soundbite or an election pledge, politicians cannot bear to miss the opportunity to get the upper hand and make their point whereas, actually, for the electorate (or this voter, at least) it might be more honest and believable to admit that there is an ideal scenario they’re working towards but the conditions aren’t yet known, facts may change and they want to give a considered response at an appropriate time. It would certainly take the wind out of the sails of some of the more aggressive interviewers.

And if, further down the line, new evidence comes to light, they’re expected to take the blame, fall on their sword and resign. Why should that be? We live in an ever-changing world. Things move on. What’s wrong with showing some humility and admitting now that you don’t know? I don’t know.