Policy needs poetry: what the humanities bring to policy making
A version of this post was first published on the Guardian’s Political Science blog.
Poets don’t often pop up at infrastructure conferences. But a few months ago, at a debate for infrastructure developers and policy makers, I began my remarks by quoting Wordsworth.
Supporting the transition to a low carbon economy is a priority for Green Alliance. We’re part of that breed of environmentalist that reckons reducing the carbon in our energy system will require new infrastructure: pylons, turbines and railways, rather than roads and runways. But we’re democrats too, and believe there are real problems with the way the public is excluded from infrastructure planning.
At this particular debate, Lord Adonis, the shadow infrastructure minister, was the keynote speaker. Green Alliance was launching Opening up infrastructure planning and it was my job as a fellow panellist to convince him of our argument. I knew it was a tough sell. Even at a time when electoral majorities look like a thing of the past, many politicians assume they take office with a full mandate to make decisions on the public’s behalf, decisions that can have long term impacts on communities and landscapes.
Opinion expressed with a poem
So, to grab Lord Adonis’ attention, I unleashed Wordsworth. I had found the poem on the British Library website which explained that, in 1844, Wordsworth had sent a letter to Prime Minister Gladstone, protesting against the proposed extension of the railway line from Kendal to Windermere. He had enclosed some verses that began, “Is there no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?” And he didn’t seem optimistic, ending the poem:
Plead for thy peace thou beautiful romance
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead,
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong
And constant voice, protest against the wrong!
Despite Wordsworth’s best efforts, the railway opened three years later. But the poem stands as a good, if unusual, example of government interaction with expertise from the humanities. In this case, the poem eloquently demonstrates how the values held by different sections of the public can lead them to different conclusions to those reached by the government of the day.
Decision making is still too top down
More than 150 years later, I found myself using the same poem as part of an argument for better public engagement in infrastructure planning. Of course, a lot has changed since the nineteenth century, when infrastructure developers didn’t have to worry about environmental impact statements or public consultations. But decision making is still too top down, and communication with the public is often based on the misguided assumption that simply handing out information will lead the public to agree with you.
The poem piqued Lord Adonis’s interest, and he ended up staying for the full hour and a half of the debate. He also pointed out my error in saying Gladstone had been Prime Minister in 1844; he was in fact then President of the Board of Trade. It left me wondering why, in this era of evidence-based policy, we don’t make more use of insights and expertise from the humanities to bolster our case. How can humanities-based arguments resonate more in the policy world, without losing their richness?
The humanities provide a window into a different world view
Insights from the humanities are especially useful for conversations about values and purposes. Why bother to save the planet? What’s worth saving? But perhaps the greatest gifts the humanities offer are linked to process, more than content. I think there are three interacting practices across the humanities that are particularly valuable. They all begin with ‘c’: criticism, creativity and curating.
Criticism involves exploring the meaning of terms, demanding clarity and exposing deception or obfuscation. Creativity is the emergence of novel ideas, new connections, objects and arguments. And curating ensures the longevity of the best products of that creativity, making sense of them for new generations, and giving them fresh life.
Perhaps it was the novelty of a few lines of poetry amidst the dry talk of strategic national plans that had a positive effect at our event. But I think it was more than that. Wordsworth’s creative outburst, curated by the British Library, provided me with an argument that still had real force in today’s political landscape.
The poem gave the audience a richer sense of why someone might oppose a particular decision: a window into a different world view. Such windows are essential, because clashing world views often lie at the heart of infrastructure controversies. If a poem can help policy makers to be a bit more humble about their own values and assumptions, perhaps it can be just as powerful and persuasive as the painstakingly researched evidence in a paper or report.