The late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds once pointed out that you can cross the big hurdles successfully, but you get tripped up when you get to the small ones.
It’s a cliché that the devil lives in the detail, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Nothing illustrates that quite as well as present day politics. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was probably nearing the end of his tenure, but statements which showed he mis-remembered a series of meetings ultimately precipitated his resignation. Donald Trump crossed the enormous hurdle of getting elected as US president. Now the real trouble for him has started.
The dilemma for any leader or aspiring leader is how much detail to offer. Too much detail provides hostages to fortune or, worse, switches people off. Too little detail suggests that the offering is lightweight or not properly thought through.
It was a major criticism leveled at Emmanuel Macron’s French presidential campaign that he suffered from “vagueness”. This was a drawback he seems to have ultimately been able to overcome but which may come back to haunt him as his new party campaigns in next month’s French National Assembly elections.
For Irish business selling into other economies, the political regimes of our trading partners, like the US and France, matter and none more so than that of the UK. Much of the UK general election campaigning in the past few days has been partisan to-ing and fro-ing between Labour and the Conservatives on the detail of their respective manifestos.
The Conservatives are challenging what they say are gaps in Labour’s economic sums. Interest groups haven’t been slow to highlight the details which most suit them, or protest against proposals that are counter to their interests. The likes of the Confederation of British Industry, and the UK’s Institute of Directors, have been quick to point out what they see are flaws in Conservative proposals for immigration and business regulation.
For most of us, detail is tedious. It’s clear from its manifesto that the UK Labour party has given more thought to tax reform than the Conservatives. Yet by listing out at some length all the specifics, they dilute their key message to the electorate, which is that they will get someone else to pay more tax. All the Conservatives claim is that they don’t intend to raise taxes at all. As a vote-getter, the Conservative manifesto approach may be better than that of Labour. It’s certainly easier to understand. The trouble is that in an increasingly sophisticated world, electorates will have to pay more attention to the detailed proposals of their election candidates or they will be conned. Clever slogans like “Take Back Control” as used in the Brexit referendum, are attractive and comprehensible, but may not be accurate. Social media, which is mainly consumed on mobile devices, is ideally suited to relay slogans but vastly inferior when it comes to setting out the detail which might justify their claims.
Vagueness is bedeviling the decision making process. While this has been an issue for many decades, it has now become commonplace. Some of the more objective media outlets routinely run fact-checking style articles. They are swimming against the tide. It’s really up to individual voters to seek out the details. If a lack of attention to detail was the Achilles heel for politicians, it has now become a real problem for all of us.
Brian Keegan is Director of Public Policy and Taxation with Chartered Accountants Ireland
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