No lessons from history

Past performance, as they say in financial services, is not an indicator of future outcomes. The same is true in politics.

There are some broad lessons one can draw from history: the British electorate tend to vote solely on domestic issues, for example, as Winston Churchill found out in 1945, and Tony Blair in 2005 – and possibly Theresa May this year. But there are times when one has to admit that looking at the past is no help at all; the present really is a different country.

Which is pretty much the case right now. We haven’t been anywhere like this in modern times.

You can see some parallels, of course. Maybe the late 1970s, when living standards fell, with prices rising faster than wages, and there was a loss of faith in the future. We also then had a government expressing doubts about the economic policies that had hitherto been orthodoxy.

That was James Callaghan, burying Keynesian principles at the 1976 Labour conference. ‘We used to think that you could spend your way out of recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending,’ he announced; ‘I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.’ He was then horrified when Margaret Thatcher demonstrated how far one could go down that road.

Perhaps there was an echo of that moment in Theresa May’s early speeches as prime minister, when she called for workers on boards of companies, and expressed doubts over an economic settlement that left large numbers of people just about managing to stay out of poverty. Like Callaghan, she doesn’t seem to be the person who’s going to follow those thoughts through to their logical conclusion, but someone else might.

May’s own position feels as hopeless as that of John Major after Black Wednesday in 1992, the leader of a government that appears inevitably doomed just a few months after a general election. Alternatively, there are those talking of her as re-living the leadership crisis of Iain Duncan Smith in 2002, with a similar defenestration required.

But these comparisons take us only so far. Unlike Smith, May is prime minister, and the Tories don’t have the luxury of opposition as they did in 2002. Nor is there a caretaker in the wings who can be crowned unopposed, as Michael Howard was then. (To some extent, May herself was supposed to occupy that role.) And the difference with the 1990s administration is that, despite some predictions, May is no Major: he was a good communicator who won the 1992 election against the odds, while she fails to connect and lost an election despite having the odds stacked in her favour.

There’s also the question of the oppositions faced by Major and May: where he faced a Labour Party led by the calming presence of John Smith, and then by the eminently electable Tony Blair – both figures to whom disaffected Tory voters could comfortably switch allegiance – the same is hardly true now.

Look at the front-bench that Smith headed 25 years ago: Gordon Brown as shadow chancellor, Jack Cunningham as shadow foreign secretary, Blair as shadow home secretary. Not the greatest team ever, but a reasonable mix of experience, plausibility and intelligence. Their equivalents today under Jeremy Corbyn? John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott. Not quite so impressive.

Regrettably, the same is true of the government. Currently occupying the real, rather than shadow jobs: Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd.

And that, in essence, is why there are no obvious lessons to be learnt from history. Even without the daunting challenge of Brexit, there would be hard times coming and we’re facing them with the least impressive set of politicians in living memory. The calibre – what Keith Joseph might call the human stock – of politics these days is pitifully low.


In these parlous conditions, it seems almost distasteful to consider the petty parochial positions of the various parties, but if pushed to make a judgement, I’d say that the conference season showed the Tories to be still in the better place.

The air of triumphalism at the Labour conference was profoundly misplaced. After seven years of government cuts and a sluggish economy, with only an appalling campaign by the Tories in front of them, Labour failed to win the general election in June. Since then, nothing’s gone right for the government, and yet the two parties are neck-and-neck in the polls (Labour should be a good 10-12 points ahead) and May is still outpolling Corbyn as the favoured choice for prime minister.

It’s a fine line between self-confidence and delusion, and the Labour Party is on the wrong side. The rhetoric is popular enough, but there’s a hell of a long way to go, and Corbyn and McDonnell are still a major handicap in the race. Despite the predictable excitement in some quarters, Labour’s front-bench look nothing like a government in waiting.

At the Conservatives’ conference, their evident misery at least made it look like they recognized the desperation of their position. Even if some of them – most notably Boris Johnson – went out of their way to make it worse.

May herself, however, did okay. Her big speech may have been bedevilled by problems, but my impression is that they didn’t undermine her position as much as the front pages might suggest. Where the complaint earlier this year was that she seemed remote to the point of being robotic, she now appears all too human. I think she has public sympathy, and that may serve her well.

This is not to deny that there are commentators saying the one thing no politician can survive is the pity of the public. Indeed, I used to argue the same in relation to Ed Miliband. But this really is a case where history is no guide.

When May became prime minister, the press – both here and abroad – talked of the Iron Lady Mark 2. That hasn’t worked out too well, and possibly it’s to May’s advantage. We’ve never had a female prime minister before who looked even vaguely vulnerable, and I don’t think that the requirements of being a strong, unshakeable leader will necessarily apply to a woman in the same way that they would to a man. Whatever polite platitudes we mouth, the country still judges male and female politicians by different values.

In fact, toughness may no longer be a key factor. Corbyn’s popularity among his supporters is based on precisely the opposite: the fact that he seems so genial. His unpopularity elsewhere, on the other hand, is the result of him seeming dictatorial and divisive. Right now, stability is more important than strength. And even if strength were important, there’s precious little of it on offer.

Lord knows May has thus far proved to be a very poor prime minister, possibly the worst of my lifetime, but such is the state of politics that – despite everything – she’s still the Conservative Party’s best option. And if the Tories can hold their nerve and button their lip, my money would be on them to see off the challenge of Corbynism. But I’m far from convinced that they’re good enough politicians to do it.



4 thoughts on “No lessons from history

  1. I agree strongly with the comparison with the late 70s. We are approaching the time when one economic orthodoxy is replaced by another. The policy of allowing bank lending to drive up asset prices and hoping that the crumbs from the tables of the wealthy fall far enough and wide enough has gone as far as it can in a democratic society. Too many voters now see little prospect of being able to buy a home and thereby take a stake in capitalism. May knows that the wind is now in Corbyn’s sails.

    Also as suggested there is good reason to believe that, barring a development such as a financial crisis or a nuclear war in Europe, Corbyn is peaking. He is flipping back and forth on BREXIT. At election times, he supports BREXIT to keep Labour voters onside; between elections he flips towards REMAIN to keep Labour members onside. He and McDonnell have also admitted that their implied promise to cancel student debt was a deception. The Left see lying to the electorate, to win the election that ushers in socialism on a social democrat ticket, as a perfectly acceptable tactic. The public don’t and within a few years of frontline politics Corbyn will probably be seen as just another mendacious politician.

    A financial crash, however, is almost inevitable. Debt levels are higher than in 2008. Pension plan holes larger. Structural deficits in government budgets greater. In dealing with Britain and Catalonia, the EU is wounding itself in order to hold onto power. What will be different this time is that there will be no cushion of interest rate cuts. The only possible response will be letting government budget deficits financed by QE rip. Not only will the principle of ‘sound money’ be destroyed but, once it becomes obvious that governments can’t meet their debt or PFI obligations, also the principle of ‘contract’. Capitalism based on the rule of law and Parliamentary democracy will destroy itself in an attempt to save itself.

    What will be crucial is the timing of the next financial crash. If it happens on Corbyn’s watch, he will unjustly take the blame and the Labour Left will be in power for just one term. What follows in terms of the political surface, in other words Parliamentary debate and policy, is unclear. Below the surface, however, the power structures in British society and economy will be left unchanged. If, however, the crash happens on the Tories’ watch, Corbyn would be elected with a genuinely popular mandate to nationalise the utilities and the banks. The public would also accept his views on the arms trade and foreign policy. He would be in a position to set a new political agenda for the next thirty years. Of those four policy areas, the only one acceptable to the Establishment would be nationalising the utilities. We will move into an era where those in power in British society are at odds with the democratic will of the people.

    BREXIT will probably be overtaken by events. However, for now it is a concern. Britain would be best off with a Brexiteer as PM. Johnson and Fox are jokes, so that would leave David Davis. Failing that, Britain needs a Remainer with a strong sense of British nationalism, someone who accepts the referendum result and now has a clear idea of what is the best deal for Britain and how to negotiate it. No one fits that bill. What we have predominantly at the top of government, both in political and civil service circles, are people who feel the best way to reverse the referendum result is to negotiate a deal so bad that the electorate begs to be allowed to stay in the EU after all.


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