For those of us of a certain age, Ed Miliband’s speech last week was exhilaratingly nostalgic. His promise to freeze energy prices reminded us of happy times when Labour policies were patently, shamelessly idiotic. At last, after a generation of loss, we began to hope to find reds under the bed again. In its understandable excitement, the Daily Mail made the mistake of finding only a dead red — Mr Miliband’s late father, Ralph. It then compounded its error by saying that Miliband senior ‘hated Britain’, on the basis of some angry remarks he made when aged 17. So the Mail managed to offend against taste and decency on multiple counts — attacking a man for his deceased father’s views, misrepresenting those views, attacking a Jew, attacking a refugee from Hitler. Why did it not stick to the red angle? Although it is true that a significant minority on the left was actually treacherous in its support for the Soviet Union, even more harm was done by honest, decent patriots, such as Ralph Miliband, who thought that state socialism was the answer to our woes. People are so anti-Tony Blair these days that they have forgotten how heroically he squashed such views and thus made his party electable. Young Miliband took a giant step backward last week. That is the point that needs making all the time.
One reason it needs making is that it is surprisingly hard to explain why it is wrong for governments to freeze prices. George Osborne said here that the freeze would lead only to a bigger hike later. This is true, but it does not get to the heart of the problem, which is to do with what a price actually is. Then you get into an economics lecture, though, and people stop listening. The biggest post-Thatcher gap in British politics is a leader who can make a true economic point in a way that hits home in human and political terms. Given that, by Mr Osborne’s stated calculation, we are only halfway through a process from collapse to recovery which will last almost 12 years, this is extraordinary. It is not so much that our leaders don’t know what they are talking about as that they don’t (or can’t) talk about what they know.
I gave a talk here on ‘Margaret Thatcher — Movie Star’, the point being to examine her through film clips rather than words alone. Because of her sex and her unusual character, she had unique visual impact. No British political leader, even Churchill, has achieved such utter recognisability or — like her or not — watchability. This was particularly strong at her own party’s conferences. She described herself after her own first visit to the 1946 Blackpool Conference as ‘entranced’. Who else would have used that word about the Tories’ annual gatherings? Yet the fact that she had that feeling made her own presence at them entrancing for others. She put everything into it. She made it all seem important and visually dramatic. The greatest difference between party conferences then and now is the lack of tension today. I decided to end my talk with a party conference clip, the famous one of her putting a handkerchief over the British Airways tailfin. That was seven years after she left office, but it still stole the show.
The Mail’s posthumous libel has allowed Mr Miliband to be all over the media all through the Tories’ week. I suspect that his next trick — part of his ‘I stand up to bullies’ theme — will be to grab the chance of next week’s phone-hacking trials to bring the Leveson process back to Parliament. He has been accused of being Hamletic. Well, now he is going to avenge his father’s ghost.
My friend David Frum, over here from the United States, thinks that the Chancellor’s promise of six more years of austere public finances will put off women voters. I suspect he may be on to something, not because women ignore economic reality, but because they sense that people who obsess about balancing the books are more interested in those books than in people. But I am not sure what else Mr Osborne can do. It is forgotten that this recession dropped more than 7 per cent of GDP from peak to trough, whereas that in the early 1990s dropped only 2 per cent. His Budget in 2015 will be an astonishing test of will, as he tries to win the election and yet promise more cuts. This can work only if voters can believe that the Tories really are on the side of opportunity. Here the Tory leadership still does not convince. All its talk is of ‘hardworking’ people. Where does that leave the rest of us?
It has been left to Boris Johnson to identify the most significant future opportunity in this country — population increase. I was very impressed by his speech on Tuesday because he did a dangerous thing: he tried to reason his party audience out of its instinctive position. London has had more live births in 2012, he told us, than at any time since the 1966 World Cup. He attributed it to time spent on the sofa during the Olympics. Conservative supporters always favour economic growth but usually balk at any linkage with having more babies. Being predominantly old, they find large numbers of the young irritating. Yet, as Boris hinted, without specifically pointing out Germany’s population decline, on current trends Britain could become the biggest country in the EU in a generation or so. He does instinctively identify the hopeful aspect of every situation, which makes him unique, and formidable.
Among the subtle social distinctions which define English life is a small place for those who feel insulted by being offered the CBE. I have come across several like that. Gordon Reece, for example, wrote furiously to Mrs Thatcher because she had offered him the CBE instead of a knighthood (a wrong she subsequently righted). Now, in Geordie Greig’s gripping new Breakfast with Lucian, I discover that Freud was offered the CBE in the 1970s. ‘I hope it is understood,’ he wrote back, ‘that I am declining for purely selfish reasons.’ He got the OM in the end.