Recently I’ve had the joy of spending time afloat on boats in Scottish lochs with friends who are supporters, members, former and future candidates, and officers of my UK political party Freedom Alliance—and it strikes me that there are some political lessons to be learned from messing about in boats. So this post is a kind of extended metaphor: what can nautical know-how teach us about being good party politicians?
Assemble a reliable crew
In order to do this, at least informal vetting has to take place and even people who are friendly, efficient and well-intentioned may have different points of view. It’s important, before setting out on a joint endeavour (such as an election campaign) to check that everyone has the same vision of the desired outcome as well as the same expectations of what contribution (which might not necessarily be financial but certainly an expenditure of time and effort) will be expected of everyone.
A sailing trip for some might mean a weekend of being drenched by spray hanging off the windward side of a close-hauled boat with the leeward gunwale just above the water; others might look forward to a crewman rubbing on their coconut suntan lotion while they sip a cocktail. Meanwhile the skipper might assume that everyone wants a not-too-challenging bit of sailing with time for a long lunch but with lifejackets always on, except at anchor. It’s worth checking!
In political terms, it’s perfectly possible to work with someone who says they’re basically a ‘paper candidate’ because they just don’t have the time or energy at the moment to do more than (maybe) an hour or two of leafleting and one afternoon of canvassing on the high street. That works if what you’re trying to do is just raise awareness of the party and of its policies on various issues. What’s more challenging is when someone puts forward great ideas and promises to action them, taking party resources to do so, then doesn’t. Some people are drawn to politics for the ego trip. One indication that you may have a good candidate is when you ask them to stand and they initially say ‘no’ then later confess they felt guilty about expecting others to do it for them.
Know the tide
If a political party were a boat, then the tide would be the predictable rhythmic movement of the primary element that upholds it and sets it in motion: public opinion. Tide tables and charts, calculations of similarity and difference, an eye on the calendar and the chronometer (clock), all these help a skipper gauge the strength and direction of this force but there’s nothing like local knowledge. While lazy tides in the upper Clyde vary only a couple of meters, less than 2 degrees of latitude south in Morecambe Bay, tides five times as high race in and out at the rate of a galloping horse.
There are some deeply-felt emotional commitments of the general UK public and of regional populations and local communities which, though manifesting seasonal changes, are predictable. The wise politician takes these into account when planning and navigating a course.
Sense the wind
The wind, in contrast, is a fickle element. Although, with the varying temperature of land and sea some breezes may be predictable, the wind can change suddenly in speed and direction. Even the prevailing wind, popularly thought to be simply southwest in mainland Britain, can not only vary with location but also with the season (northeasterlies are at least as common in springtime). They say a week is a long time in politics, well you can say the same about an hour at sea. The wise sailor is prepared to haul in, let out or reef (decrease the area of) the sail, change course and to drop the sail altogether and use the engine or just heave to, batten down the hatches and ride out the storm!
Being buoyed up by the media is exhilarating, as long as it lasts, but can be exhausting and only a fool relies on the constancy of the mediated crowd. It’s simply not possible to sail directly against the wind and heading too close to the wind can risk severe tipping (if the sail’s in tight) and the sail flapping. Conversely, sailing “goose-winged” (head sail out on one side, main on the other) with the wind behind you certainly gives you speed but a sudden gust can result in an accidental gybe sending the boom (bottom bar of the mainsail) swinging across the cockpit, knocking unwary heads, and precariously positioned crew overboard!
The political lesson here is keep a weather eye out and don’t rely on whatever the public is feeling this week, especially whatever the media is reporting they’re feeling, to continue. A reckless career can very easily go overboard! Without public backing nothing can be done but if sails are the policies put up by the party, then they can be scaled up or down and set out differently in order to work wisely with the fickle force of mediated opinion.
Ready the ropes
Seamanship’s a lot like being a Boy Scout or a Girl Guide (which are not the same, by the way): you have to be prepared. Sailing is all about opposition of forces, and ropes help maintain and direct the resultant force, so you need to have them handy and to know how and when to tie, untie, pull and slacken them. But ropes can be a hazard if you trip over them or they wrap themselves round the propeller!
The ropes don’t act directly on the forces driving the boat but they link most of the parts of the boat that do (the exceptions being the rudder operated by the hand-held tiller and the propeller operated by the engine). So, in the party, these are the links between the structure of the party and its policies, links that are the means of raising, deploying and replacing those policies. These internal party functions must be handy, reliable under strain and must keep to their designated place.
So, for example, means of internal and external communication by email, telephone, mail and internal mail, newspaper, television, radio and social media. This is the running rigging of a political party. It’s important to be able to identify these connections, to have them available for use and to understand how to use them.
Be clear about decision-making
There are two situations I feel are unsuited to democracy: cooking and sailing. Someone has to be in charge because if every decision is taken as an opportunity for renegotiation then the broth will spoil with too many cooks and the entire crew will end up overboard. Sometimes people simply have to do what they’re told, and sometimes, in a crisis, they will have to be told curtly and without immediate explanation.
There are several caveats to the above paragraph.
- Firstly, a tyrannical skipper risks mutiny. This can be as mild as mates delaying their return from the pub cos they’re having more fun on land than at sea or as extreme as fisticuffs aboard. I’ve never witnessed the latter but I have been on a tall ship continuously at sea for weeks and it was clear that the extremely competent captain and first mate placed a very high value on crew morale.
- Secondly, if an explanation (and apology for tone) can’t be given immediately it should not be delayed when the crisis is over.
- Thirdly, sailing is supposed to be enjoyable and politics is supposed to make things better. So a skipper/ leader has to ask: is it? If the answer is “no” then things have to improve and (as Stan Lee said in 1962, when his government started 10 years of spraying Vietnamese forests with Agent Orange) “with great power there must also come–great responsibility”.
Thanks to Di McMillan for permission to use photo. Copyright otherwise remains with her.