I READ recently that researchers at Yale University have developed a new blood test that can tell you how long you have left to live. The context was a medical one – biomarkers, disease prediction, and so on – and that is, of course, a laudable thing. But if it actually came to it, would you really want that information? I don’t mean if you were suffering from some awful illness – I mean if the technology were to be broadened out (as technologies invariably are) and all it took was a routine visit to the hospital for that kind of Promethean secret to suddenly be on offer. What would you say? I, for one, would avoid it like the plague. The date of my own death is, quite literally, the last thing I want to know.
Like most people, I tend to take the view that a very occasional, sideways peek at the subject of mortality is quite sufficient. I’m not saying it doesn’t have its uses, it’s just that, like everything else, it’s a question of balance. There’s no doubt that having the odd ‘life’s too short’, ‘carpe diem’ type of revelation can be very handy: there’s nothing quite like looking down the wrong end of the telescope, as it were, to magic things into their correct perspective.
But it’s not something you’d want to live with – that’s my point. To have the mental countdown clock to your own dead end would be either insanity-inducing or paralysing, or both. It needs to be a special-occasion type of thing, something to be held in reserve – almost like a terrifying but effective reversal of the ‘only three more sleeps until Christmas/your birthday/summer holidays’ spiel that we give to our kids.
There are some people, though, who should be extremely wary of this little trick of perspective. I’m talking about a very particular subset of the population, who have very particular needs: people who have basically undertaken to do the reverse of what I’ve just described. I’m talking about politicians. Because when a politician is sworn in to public office, the pact that they are effectively making with us is that they will always look beyond the vanishing point of their own personal ambition and focus instead on the broader sweep of things. They will, in short, devote themselves to creating policies for the long term, not setting up quick wins for their own political lifespans.
Rarely, though, does this turn out to be the reality. Just look at Trump’s narcissistic nonsense, or David Cameron’s Brexit legacy, which surely has to be the modern era’s most outrageous example of someone dropping a political fart in the lift and then getting off at the next floor.
And yes, we have our own offenders too – not least, and certainly most topically, those who are currently swirling around in the vacuum of indecision concerning Jersey’s new hospital. I’m not going to waste any time talking about that now but, even with public opinion so dramatically divided, there’s still one thing we can probably all agree on: there have been some tragic examples of political grandstanding along the way.
In their defence, though, States Members do have it harder in this respect than the majority of their global counterparts, because they lack the one thing that gives so many others courage – a party political system. In this context, political parties act like super-life structures. They offer a sort of public afterlife in which individual politicians’ workstreams can all swirl together in a loose continuum. And being affiliated in this way makes it easier for the wobblier ones on the political benches to be a bit more courageous and to concentrate on what might work well in the long run.
This is perhaps why so many of the people we send to the States Assembly end up careering around in almost the same way as the rest of us would if we were to find out our death days. I say ‘almost’ because there is one fundamental difference in their case: the fate that awaits them at the end of their four years of political life is not set. It is in our hands. We’re the ones who need to be convinced when it comes to election time, and without getting all ‘Gladiator’ about it, I say that next time that decision rolls around, we only give the thumbs-up to the ones who can truly look back and say they’ve acted in the greater interest.
As for those others, the ones who abstain on the hard choices, who are mysteriously absent for the tough votes and yet still manage to scuttle to the front to take their bows… I don’t have the technology that those researchers at Yale are working with but I’m still pretty sure that when your test results come in, you’re going to want to be sitting down.