Alex Massie

Change We Can Believe In?

Text settings

Ben Brogan suspects the financial crisis is an advantage for Gordon Brown. Perhaps it is. In the short-term. Make that in the very short-term. But in the medium to long-term it's another millstone dragging him to the bottom. Danny Finkelstein is, I believe, correct:

This election will not be fought in the middle of a crisis. It will be fought in the depressed aftermath that results from the crisis. The politics of these two moments are quite different.

In a crisis people will be small 'c' conservatives, clinging to experience. They fear losing what they have got. But the literature on loss aversion suggests that in the depressed aftermath, when things are already bad, they will take a risk, and plump for change.

So even if I were inclined to believe that the electorate are willing to give Brown a second chance - which I am not - I don't think Labour can win using experience against change.

David Cameron's speech to the Tory party conference was many things: sober, calm, astute, sophisticated. But most of all it was the kind of speech that can only be given by a politician who knows he's ready to win. He framed the Experience vs Change argument well, putting it in terms that anyone who has been following the American presidential election closely will understand:

But when it comes to handling a crisis when it comes to really making a difference on the big issues it’s not just about your values. There’s something else people want to know. When people ask: “will you make a difference?” they’re often asking will you – i.e. me – will you make a difference? You can’t prove you’re ready to be Prime Minister – and it would be arrogant to pretend you can. The best you can do is tell people who you are and the way you work; how you make decisions and then live with them...

Thinking before deciding is good. Not deciding because you don’t like the consequences of a decision is bad. Trust your principles, your judgment and your colleagues. Go with your conviction, not calculation. The popular thing may look good for a while. The right thing will be right all the time. Tony Blair used to justify endless short-term initiatives by saying “we live in a 24 hour media world.”

But this is a country not a television station. A good government thinks for the long term. If we win we will inherit a huge deficit and an economy in a mess. We will need to do difficult and unpopular things for the long term good of the country. I know that. I’m ready for that.

And there is a big argument I want to make – about the financial crisis and the economic downturn, yes but about the other issues facing the country too. It’s an argument about experience. To do difficult things for the long-term or even to get us through the financial crisis in the short term what matters more than experience is character and judgment, and what you really believe needs to happen to make things right.  I believe that to rebuild our economy, it’s not more of the same we need, but change. To repair our broken society, it’s not more of the same we need, but change.

Experience is the excuse of the incumbent over the ages. Experience is what they always say when they try to stop change. In 1979, James Callaghan had been Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor before he became Prime Minister. He had plenty of experience. But thank God we changed him for Margaret Thatcher.

Just think about it: if we listened to this argument about experience, we’d never change a government, ever. We’d have Gordon Brown as Prime Minister – for ever.

Gordon Brown talks about his economic experience. The problem is, we have actually experienced his experience. We’ve experienced the massive increase in debt. We have experienced the huge rise in taxes. We experienced the folly of pretending that boom and bust could be ended. This is the argument we will make when the election comes. The risk is not in making a change. The risk is sticking with what you’ve got and expecting a different result. There is a simple truth for times like this. When you’ve taken the wrong road, you don’t just keep going. You change direction – and that is what we need to do. So let’s look at how we got here – and how we’re going to get out.

Was it a perfect speech? No. Did he have to be mean (and inaccurately so, to boot) about libertarianism? I wish he hadn't. But then again there's not a great constituency for libertarianism here. Still, overall, it was a fine effort and streets ahead of anything El Gordo (or, for that matter, John McCain) can offer right now. It was, dare one say it, a rather Thatcheresque speech, albeit Thatcherism retooled for the 21st century. Tough, but ambitious; sober yet audacious. Above all, it screamed: it's time for change we can all believe in.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietytories