Alex Massie

The Importance of Penance

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Following this excellent column at the Daily Beast, Bruce Bartlett, a veteran Republican whose credentials are established by his work for Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and Goerge HW Bush, emails Steve Benen to make a very useful point:

I believe that political parties should do penance for their mistakes and just losing power is not enough. Part of that involves understanding why those mistakes were made and how to prevent them from happening again. Republicans, however, have done no penance. They just pretend that they did nothing wrong. But until they do penance they don't deserve any credibility and should be ignored until they do. That's what my attacks on Bush are all about. I want Republicans to admit they were wrong about him, accept blame for his mistakes, and take some meaningful action to keep them from happening again.

I think this is absolutely correct. The GOP needs a period in the wilderness to contemplate and learn from its mistakes, just as the Tories needed time out of office to renew their own ideas and rehabilitate their reputation. The question here, however, is whether Labour recognise their own sins, and what form will their penance take? That is, will Labour think that their defeat (assuming it comes next year) was simply the product of exhaustion and an unpopular Prime Minister whose ministry was crippled by a global financial crisis few people had foreseen?

In other words, will Labour take responsibility for their defeat or will they think it was the unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, consequence of a series of unfortunate events for which they were understandably ill-prepared? If they follow the latter course - which is the easier, more comfortable choice - then they risk prolonging their spell in opposition even if the Tories prove an underwhelming government themselves.

Acknowledging all this is difficult, which is also why it's necessary. The stewardship of the public finances is part of it, of course, but there's more to Labour's defeat than just that. Equally, a defeated party's penance has to take account of the fact that the electorate has moved on. The new government will be given a chance (even if polls may fluctuate) and the opposition's response must take account of that, rather than pretend that the decisive election was merely a blip which ought not to be taken as any meaningful statement that might have long-term consequences.

Clearly, there will be much sniping and recrimination on the Labour benches. But the question is whether this will be largely for show, or a real attempt to understand where and why the party went wrong. So, this being the case, I'd be very interested in knowing what Brother Bright thinks of all this. And, for that matter, what commenters think too.

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.

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