31 January 2010

Changing the topic: questions for aspiring political leaders

Filed under: general election, leadership, politics — David Wood @ 1:10 pm

Electioneering will be ramping up, in the UK, over the next few months.

As well as the question of “which politicians are the best choices to be voted into parliament”, there’s a broader question at stake:

  • What criteria should we be using, as an electorate in 2010, to assess aspiring politicians?

Of course, high on the list of criteria comes the matter of economic competence.  Which politicians are the most likely to be able to oversee an economic recovery?

Similarly, there’s the question of general trustworthiness: is this a person who can, on the whole, be trusted to be take hard decisions, and to follow through responsibly on the results of these decisions?

However, alongside that kind of traditional criteria, I’d like to try to inject some additional questions into the public debate.

My hope with these questions is to identify politicians who have responsible and well-informed techno-progressive views:

  • They understand the tremendous difference that can be made to the well-being of society by swift and thoughtful development and deployment of new technology;
  • They are aware of the drawbacks that new technology can bring, but they are able to assess these drawbacks within an overall positive and constructive framework;
  • They will not allow important questions of technology development to be submerged under lots of other day-to-day debate.

My list of questions is by no means final.  But I’d like to start somewhere.

So here goes.  Here’s my list of ten open questions, that I am preparing to ask whenever the chance arises.  Hopefully the answers that politicians give will provide an indication as to whether they have a good understanding of the huge transformative potential of science and technology.

  1. What are the most serious risks of major disasters affecting the UK in the next 20-40 years, and what do you think needs to be done about these risks?
  2. Under what circumstances would you approve of a government minister overruling the advice of an expert committee of scientists about a matter of science (eg whether a particular drug is harmful)?
  3. What’s your view of genetically engineered medicines and foods?
  4. What’s your view of nuclear energy?
  5. Would you approve of research into geo-engineering to counter possible runaway global warming?
  6. What kinds of medical research would you prioritise?
  7. What’s your reaction to the changing population demographics (where there’s an ever greater proportion of older people)?
  8. Which technology sectors do you see as most important for the future of this country?
  9. Do you approve of the way the current patent system interacts with the development of technologically innovative solutions?
  10. Do you think any special attention should be paid to the opinion of religious leaders over matters such as medical research or the application of technology?

Most of the questions have no “right” answers, but there are plenty of “bad” answers which would cause me to be distrustful of someone who gave that answer:

  • One set of bad answers is “techo-conservatism” – insisting on lots of caution with any new technology (similar to the people who demanded that a moving motor vehicle should be preceded by a pedestrian carrying a red flag);
  • Another set of bad answers is “techno-utopianism” – praising technology without appreciating its potential drawbacks (but I’m not expecting many aspiring politicians to make that mistake);
  • Finally, I fear answers that would indicate “techno-ignorance” – lack of practical awareness of the issues about new technology (nanotech, synthetic biology, new sources of energy, robotics, AI…).

I’m not expecting that any one party will have politicians who give uniformly good (or uniformly bad) answers to these questions.  The techno-progressive spectrum cuts across traditional party lines.

Are these the right questions?  What questions would you want to add to this list, or subtract from it?


  1. Interesting questions. A blog post that gave your answers to the questions would also be interesting. I’m toying with the idea of doing such a blog post myself.

    I have some questions I’d add:

    a) How important do you think it is to fund ‘pure’ research?
    b) How should we fund higher education?
    c) What kind of things can we do to improve primary and secondary education?

    (These questions are motivated by the belief that the long term future of Britain is dependent on a good educational system, at all levels.)

    d) What would cause you to change your mind on a subject?
    e) What is the last thing of importance that you changed your mind about?
    f) Under what circumstances would you vote against your party?

    (These questions are motivated by the belief that it is more important to have independence and an open mind than any particular viewpoint.)

    If I only had the opportunity to ask one question of a politician, it would be (f). One of the hard aspects of being an MP is dealing with the tension between their own views, that of their party and that of their electorate. It is this tension that enables good decisions to be made and any politician that hasn’t seriously thought about this tension doesn’t deserve office.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 2 February 2010 @ 7:54 am

  2. The answer to the question, “Under what circumstances would you vote against your party?” is, “When I have a wafer-thin majority and my electorate wants me to.”

    I’m not sure how we might get answers to these questions. Now is a good time to try asking, though I suspect the response rate will be below 25%. Sitting MPs are more likely to respond if questions are put to them either by constituents or by a recognised organisation representing significant numbers of individuals (thousands not hundreds). Candidates should be fairly keen.

    Darren Reynolds
    Chair, Burnley Lib Dems

    Comment by Darren Reynolds — 2 February 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  3. I think more interesting than the answers are the reasons behind them. Are they able to give a well thought out arguement to support their position or are they (as normal) trying to please the media or their boss. What worries me is the vacuous nature of many politicians brains, but then, when the population votes for MP’s based on a party leaders smile the whole idea of democracy is doomed to failure.

    Comment by Dave — 19 March 2010 @ 12:12 pm

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