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An astonishingly ignorant Cabinet Minister?

Mrs May’s Northern Ireland Secretary, The Rt. Hon. Karen Bradley MP, has given a candid interview in which she volunteered her (to some astounding) ignorance of Northern Ireland when she took the job of Northern Ireland Secretary in January this year.

Ms Bradley said she was surprised by the politics of the region upon her appointment.

“I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland,” she said.

“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa.

“So, the parties fight for the election within their own community. Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.

I do wonder what sort of conversation and with whom led to the penny dropping…

The post of Northern Ireland Secretary, whose function is to act more or less like a colonial governor eager to let the natives manage themselves, is one that has, in my imagination, been given by the Prime Minister to an MP who is (a) tough enough to face up to the job and (b) disposable enough for the Prime Minister to miss the least from those in category (a) should the assassins strike. Nowadays, (b) is less of a concern.

A brief bio, Ms Bradley appears to be 48, a Maths graduate, an MP since 2010 and a former tax manager (whatever that is), a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (in the UK, not in East Germany) and a Remainer. Per the article, by 1979, aged 9, politics were an issue in her household, and she has long known that there was terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Of course, who people vote for in Northern Ireland is determined, in every case, by the decisions of the individuals concerned, just like anywhere else, well unless they are dead Democrats, or North Koreans etc. But it seems a fair assessment of the situation that members of one community won’t vote for candidates from parties representing the other (although in some areas, tactical voting for the least bad major candidate might be a good idea).

What astounds me about this MP’s revelation is not that she made it, there’s no reason why the odd frank politician might not make it, but rather that she has spent over 2 years in the Cabinet of Her Britannic Majesty’s government without her ignorance coming to light. Frankly, I would have expected to find this sort of ignorance about Northern Ireland in a farmer in Bhutan, not an MP for 8 years in the Conservative and Unionist Party. I would expect most socialists to be positively and wilfully mis-informed about Northern Ireland.

But someone politically active might have noticed, in no particular order, the Hunger Strikes, the Warrington bomb, the IRA mortar attack on Downing Street, the Marching Season issue, and thought “What is this all about?“.

To me this situation begs (edit: poses) a number of questions:

1.How do you go through life in the UK, with an interest in politics, without finding out anything, anything at all, about the fundamentals in one part of the UK, where the news has, for decades, been mostly about violence and terror? Is it that a Comprehensive education positively blocks the mind from seeking explanations or causes?

2. Does it matter if a politician knows nothing at all, about the area they ‘manage’? Is such a politician in a position to judge when being played by their civil servants or others, like a fiddle?

3. How do you become an MP and Cabinet Minister without anyone rumbling your ignorance?

4. How many more MPs are there out there with this sort of perspective? (And can we honestly expect any principled opposition to government from our MPs?)

I would of course, contrast this ignorance to the cultivated ignorance of the British official in colonial Hong Kong who said that he had no need of statistics to tell him how many people lived in any particular area; he knew such information would be used for statist mischief.

On a positive note, the good Secretary of State has cut spending ever so slightly.

Earlier today Ms Bradley announced that members of the legislative assembly in Northern Ireland would have their pay cut from £49,500 to £35,888 and then by a further £6,187 amid an ongoing stalemate at Stormont.

This is after them doing no work at Stormont for over 18 months.

18 comments to An astonishingly ignorant Cabinet Minister?

  • seekerofthetruth

    Better a minister who acknowledges her ignorance, than one who is convinced of things that “just ain’t so”.

  • Sam Duncan

    “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa.”

    This might explain why nobody in power seems terribly concerned about Scotland heading the down the same dark path. They probably haven’t noticed.

    “an MP for 8 years in the Conservative and Unionist Party”

    The “Unionist” part of the name being, of course, a reference to the Liberal Unionists, who left the Liberal Party over the issue of union with Ireland and merged with the Conservatives roughly a century ago. This isn’t just British and Irish history, it’s the history of her own party. It’s astonishing.

    Fair point though, seekerofthetruth. At least she knows now. And the interview itself may enlighten a few members of the public.

  • Alsadius

    I can understand her being a bit ignorant of the topic when she took the job. But the first thing you do in that case is try to do a bit of research, if you have any sense whatsoever.

  • david morris

    Begs the question

    Why are the “members of the legislative assembly” being paid at all ?

  • Stonyground

    I seem to recall that there was a minister for the environment who spent his entire tenure believing that El Nino was the name of a hurricane.

  • Julie near Chicago

    “…begs the question …”

    No. To “beg the question” is to assume the conclusion in the argument for it, thus to argue circularly. Often the assumption is lightly disguised, but sometimes it’s out there starkers, flagrantly flapping in the wind.

    Not the case here. Here, what is meant is “to raise the question,” “to bring up the issue,” so forth.

    Sorry, I couldn’t help mentioning it. I imagine most everybody here knows that. :>(


    As to this issue, seems to me Sam and Seeker have it right.

  • George Atkisson

    Who knows? Someone with that level of ignorance must perforce “think outside the box” since for her, the box does not exist.

    “Don’t talk to me about the past. These are today’s issues and the people here today will deal with them in a way that works today.”

    I can dream.

  • David Bishop

    Mr Ed, it’s a wonder you managed to restrain yourself from a more critical appraisal of the estimable Mrs Fifthmonth’s role in appointing Ms Bradley in the first place.

  • Penseiveat

    Perhaps it is better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re an incompetent moron, than to open it and have people know you’re an incompetent moron.

  • James Hargrave

    As we all know, El Nino is a wine bar.

    But it does not take a stupid Canute to appoint one. How many ministers are really on top of their briefs (and do they tuck their vests in)?

  • Aetius

    Ignorance in a politician is a major advantage as they climb the greasy pole. A politician who actually has some knowledge and understanding of an aspect of the outside world is likely to be tempted to argue forcefully for or against a particular course of action according to its likely effects. As the wise course will probably conflict with the desires of the leader, their advisors and the party’s whips, this could well be career-killing.

  • Mr Ed

    Julie NC,

    I have acknowledged your point, never one to put logic aside. As for dm’s point, when the Northern Ireland political apparatus was being set up, a client of mine wished to know when a change in the law would be made in Northern Ireland. After much searching, I found that the priority legislation for the ‘Assembly’ included the legislation to make sure that they were paid, but there was nothing more in the pipeline. The client appeared to be unsurprised at the priorities of the politicians. After all, it is not their fault if they can’t agree to do their jobs, and what horrors would arise if they were paid by results or piecework? 😳

    As for DB’s point, I do not have enough information to judge the decision of the FFC (to whom I conclude you refer as ‘Mrs Fifthmonth’, but second month of the tax year) on its merits, as I don’t know who else was in the frame. Perish the thought that the FFC is not appointing the best talent available, even if it be a future rival.

  • Natalie Solent

    Such is my willingness to believe the best of people that I will put forward the suggestion that she could have meant that she had not truly appreciated the effect of the sectarian divide on N.I. politics “in her gut”, so to speak, rather than that she literally had not known about it.

    I say this because I have been known to say, “I didn’t truly know the world was round until the internet came along”. Honestly, I had got the memo about the actual shape of the planet, but for the first half of my life at least it made almost zero difference to me. I had made a handful of international phone calls for which I had needed to work out the time difference, and time zones or the international dateline had occasionally turned up as plot elements in novels I read or films I watched. Only when I got into this new-fangled intertubes business did thoughts like “I wonder if the Americans or the Australians have left any comments on my Samizdata post while I was asleep” become a regular part of my life.

  • Natalie Solent (September 10, 2018 at 12:41 pm), that thought also occurred to me – that she might have known it in an intellectual sense, while failing (perhaps seriously failing) to appreciate how it would impact ordinary life. I recall, long ago, someone in a similar position describing how he questioned a proposed new car park in a Northern Ireland district that had one already, only to be told, “But that’s the catholic car park!” (Or it may have been “But that’s the protestant carpark!” – I do not recall.) At that moment, he realised that, while he had known the communities were divided, he had not really grasped the fact.

    IN WWII and just after, Churchill, who had served in India, tried to explain to Labour people (who hadn’t, but were sure they already knew all about it) the depth of the Muslim-Hindu division there. They ignored him, sure it was just a divide-et-impera excuse for the empire, and a million died.

  • Derek Buxton

    I have found that the bulk of our politicians are pretty much illiterate on things that are actually happening. Unfortunately this leads to bad decision making at the least and it is usually disastrous.

  • biff

    “An astonishingly ignorant Cabinet Minister” …but I repeat myself.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr Ed ;>)

    (The Great Frog made me do it.)

  • Paul Marks

    And we are supposed to respect these “educated” ministers?

    As for the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly – the first they did was put their own pay up. They should not be paid anything. But then the whole Belfast Agreement is insane – totally insane.

    Sinn Fein can not be part of the government of Northern Ireland – because it believes that Northern Ireland should not exist, that it should just be part of the Republic of Ireland.

    No British Prime Minister, including Mrs Thatcher, seem unable to grasp this simple fact – that talks with Sinn Fein are utterly pointless, indeed incredibly harmful.

    I once asked Enoch Powell if, had Airey Neave had lived, Airey Neave would have been able to explain this basic fact to the British establishment – but sadly Mr Powell just went off into an anti American thing about “high contracting parties” (British and American intelligence) being somehow involved in the death of Airey Neave as some sort of plot to make the Republic of Ireland part of NATO. Nonsense, utter nonsense, but there we go.

    It is depressing – but I think we are actually further away from basic understanding than we were then.

    No talks with Sinn Fein – no deals with Sinn Fein. One fights the war to WIN the war – not for a “political settlement” which means DEFEAT by the instalment plan.