Skip to content

Lessons in Life: Politics Begins at Home

December 21, 2014

Neville Chamberlain – Peace In Our Time


Let me tell you a little story about politics. Actually it’s a tale from the teenage years of our eldest daughter, but it’s still about politics.

Fourteen is an age when the sweetest of little girls can turn into terrorists. Not overnight of course, but the slow build-up of hormonal forces often acquires critical mass at that age. And I’m not saying that had ISIS been around at the time she would have been on the coach towards Dover, dreaming of Syria. She was far smarter than that.

No, her terrorism was more of a domestic nature. Sulks, arguments about nothing, breaks for freedom, usually in the form of escaping the house to join her mates in the park, where tribes of teenagers would gather, seeking solidarity and the freedom to do things of which their parents would disapprove. If you’ve ever been a parent of teenagers you probably know what I’m talking about.

It was a time of walking on eggshells, of never knowing when we might trigger an emotional IED that would roll over civilised discourse in an omnidirectional blast of anger and recrimination. What made it more difficult was that she was our firstborn, and we hadn’t much of a clue about how to deal with this new phenomenon. We had conveniently forgotten what pains in the backside we were at that age – though I should really speak for myself, because I’m sure my wife was never like that.

Anyway, against this tableau of terrorism and trepidation, picture the scene one morning when our daughter, heavily emblazoned with the dark eyes of a goth and an expression of profound misery, comes to Daddy with a tale of woe. Why me? Well, at this point I should explain that she was pretty good at divide and rule.

Daddy, I have no clothes.

Yes you do – they’re all over the floor in your bedroom. I then tell her about the six layers of Troy, and how Schleimann couldn’t determine which of them was the city described by Homer. At least I was in the process of telling her when she interrupted me.

But they’re all out of date and I look terrible in them.

Ah, the fascism of fashion, I thought. The domination of the designer label. The cruelty of cool. So, after making rumbling noises about the fact that she should really learn to look after the clothes she had before coming to us for new ones, I tentatively inquired what she might have in mind.

A new coat, new jeans, several tops and a new pair of shoes. To add to the abundant archaeology already to be found on her floor.

Ridiculous, was my knee-jerk response. At which point she began to describe the deep psychic damage our meanness would cause. How terrible she looked, how unconfident she felt with her friends, how she would grieve every night at her inadequacy. And it was all our fault.

In an attempt to ward off the demons of teenage angst, I agreed to speak to her mother, if only to get her off my back for a while. Oh, another thing you should know. She had an instinctive flair for laying this kind of stuff on me at moments of maximum vulnerability – I might be busy wrestling with a problem of my own, or about to go to work, or with her in a public place where an emotional IED might cause considerable embarrassment. She also knew that I would always prefer jaw jaw to war war.

So enter Mum into the equation. My wife is definitely the Iron Lady of our family. Though she has a heart of gold and a caring instinct Thatcher never showed the world, she takes – shall we say – a fairly robust view of most things. No wobbles for her, though she’s not averse to the odd strategic retreat when pressure from her Cabinet (ie me) is applied. And in the case of our daughter’s demand, predictably, her response was a flat veto.

The inevitable and equally predictable outcome of the stand-off was a period of cold war, occasionally interrupted by outbreaks of hot war. Non-cooperation, sulking, sarcasm (another seemingly natural weapon in daughter’s armoury), sanctions and a generally unpleasant atmosphere around the house.

This state of affairs continued for several days, during which I sought refuge in my study, especially when my attempts to mediate met with little success or even appreciation by either of the warring parties. You’ll notice that by this stage, rather shamefully, I’d joined the non-aligned movement, a tendency when the going got tough that rightly earned me negative brownie points from my wife. Not for nothing did I refer to myself in those days as the Boutros Boutros Ghali of the Royston family.

And then one day our daughter came to me with the sweetest expression – no longer the gothic scowl – to offer a concession.

Daddy, I’ve been thinking about the clothes. Actually, I can do without the coat, the jeans and the top for a while. But please please please please can I have a new pair of shoes?

And it worked. After days of crawling through our domestic Stalingrad, dodging emotional shells and sniper bullets, I could see a possible peace treaty. I presented a united cabinet opinion to my wife, who agreed on the grounds that girls of 14 actually outgrow their footwear, but stipulated that the shoes should be “sensible”. After a bit of wrangling on the definition of sensible, the deal was done. Peace and amicability were restored, and my daughter skipped off to the shoe shop and returned with a very nice pair of heels. Not very sensible, but definitely shoes.

I use that story in workshops on negotiation to illustrate a variant of one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence. It’s called reverse reciprocation. Start with an extreme position. Make a concession by partially backing down. The other party reciprocates with a concession from their original position, which in our case was no. The result: the party taking the extreme position is rewarded with something when nothing was originally on the table.

Does that not sound familiar? I’m not aware of any nations that have imposed sanctions on Russia in the past year expecting Vladimir Putin to walk away from Crimea, for example. A settlement that leaves the territory of the rest of Ukraine intact and ensures that Putin stops playing mind games over the future of Moldova and the former Soviet Baltic republics would be regarded by America, the European Union and NATO as a win. And Russia ends up with something that was never on the table in the first place. Sanctions lifted. Normal relations restored.

Except that such tactics rarely result in lasting tranquillity. As Neville Chamberlain found out when dealing with Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War 2, and as we found out again and again during our daughter’s interesting teenage years. Once successful, extreme negotiators continue to push at new boundaries until they either make the fatal mistake of pushing too far or grow tired of the game. Or, in the case of teenagers, grow up to become delightful and responsible adults, as has our daughter.

If you look around the world you can see the consequences of overreach – actual or potential. Saddam Hussein might still be with us if he had not overrun Kuwait. Will the Peshawar school massacre spell the death knell of the Pakistan Taliban? Might ISIS yet consolidate their caliphate within the existing territory that they control if they cease their barbaric treatment of the unfortunates under their control, and agree not to export their ideology beyond their borders? At what stage might Iran swallow the bitter pill and abandon their nuclear ambitions?

These questions remain to be answered. But the story of my daughter and the shoes goes to show that we don’t need to gaze at the world stage to see politics in action. It’s happening under our noses every day in our homes and workplaces. The principles are the same – the only variables are the scale and the consequences.

All we have to do is watch and hopefully learn – about red lines, about listening, about reading intentions and about the importance of time in establishing a modus vivendi, It’s all there on the home front. And one more thought: children know things that adults often forget. We can learn from them as well as they from us.

From → Politics, Social, UK

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: