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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: We enjoy our fantasies of bold leaders but comforting, pragmatic governments tend to be re-elected

What a sudden and strange shift we've seen in the last week. For no obvious reason, Conservatives have become gloomy about their electoral prospects. Four months ago, at the party conference, I was virtually derided for arguing that winning an absolute majority was an almost impossible mountain to climb. Now, we read on this site, that even surviving as a Coalition may be too hard. One moment everyone is praising Cameron for his sure-footedness, the next moment we find The Sunday Times calling his government "weak and shifty".

Once upon a time politics was simpler; we had a straight fight between two sides, left and right. But (as I wrote earlier) "about a third of votes now go to the smaller parties, so to achieve the winning proportions of an earlier era - maybe 45% - implies a better than 2-to-1 split of Conservatives to Labour. That's plain unthinkable. Nor would a slight weakening of the LibDem vote be enough because the distribution means they and the other smaller parties will still win a significant number of seats".

It would not be enough to rely on Ed Miliband's failures, as he would either improve or be replaced. Realising this, I argued, Conservatives strategists would increasingly want to strengthen rather than jeapordise their relationships with their Coalition partners. They would not strike out in a radical direction but would rather fight it out for the very centre-point of public opinion.

Of course this can be attacked as shallow populism. The Sunday Times (£) wants to know what David Cameron truly "stands for". But honestly, do we clamour to be led by a philosopher-king? It's the perennial schizophrenia of politics: we want our leaders to lead - so long as they lead in our direction; otherwise we prefer them to be influenced by some better opinion. Does anyone truly want to follow a man just because he knows what he stands for?

My great friend Tim, the true sage of this site, wonders if a willingness to follow a bold strategy, clearly and openly delineated, might not pay off even if it were temporarily unpopular. Go for growth the Conservative way, he argues, by cutting taxes; unabashedly support the profit-makers and the hard workers; cut regulation, reduce debt faster, radically reform public services and tackle the EU head-on. 'Doing the right thing', he believes, will be rewarded by a grateful nation. It could very possibly work wonders. Personally, I love that stuff, but it frightens people: it could go very wrong, especially in the short term. Our natural caution stops us from optimising, to be sure, but it may also help us avoid disasters. People at the helm of giant, complex enterprises are rarely confident they can see very far into the future. We no longer live in a world where leaders feel sure about their visionary leadership.

They are right to be wary. Most areas of public policy are ruled by the consensus of experts, and generate little noise. The issues we do get worked up about, the truly contended areas, inevitably have brilliant thinkers on either side, even Nobel-Prize-winning geniuses arguing this way or that: the best information analysed by the best minds still bring no clarity. In these cases a modern networked democracy creates a great social brain which ends up aggregating multiple experiences, emotions and viewpoints to determine the direction in which we will travel. We make our decisions by culture, together.

Last week Janan Ganesh of The Economist tweeted: "The PM has so much faith in his ability to respond to events as they happen that he thinks he doesn't need a strategy." I don't think the Prime Minister believes himself to be divinely smart, merely that he is canny in navigating public opinion. We saw that over the EU veto. He used it, to great applause. Then, when hardly anyone cared, he gave it up. He knows that people want occasionally to stick two fingers to the EU, and that they are then nervous if a quiet compromise can't then be found to calm things down.

We enjoy our fantasies of traditional leadership - captains on the bridge of the ship seeing further than anyone else - but no one in a position of public decision-making feels comfortable being seriously out of tune with the public. The most secure way to stay in Numbers 10 and 11 is to make comforting noises and have a slightly better economic policy than the other guys. It's profoundly uninspiring, anti-romantic and grindingly dull, but it's probably sensible.


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