Monday, September 29, 2008

On underestimating the enemy

David Osler in confessional mode wonders whether he hasn't misunderestimated David Cameron:
"I'm starting to suspect that attempts to dismiss Cameron - pictured above - as 'the same old same old' are as wide of the mark as the Major government's laughable initial efforts to brand Blair a closet 'demon eyes' socialist back in 1994 and 1995."
Nick Cohen also argues that the left really ought to take Cameron more seriously.

They're both right - although I think it's part of a wider problem. Even in the narrow terms of Cameron's leadership, I don't think the left and Tory opposition in general has really taken on board what Cameron represents:

1) He's lightweight in many respects but - I'm repreating myself here, I realise - he knows what is wrong with his party, what was making them unelectable. He's like Blair in this important respect. People sneer at him attempting to 'de-toxify' the Tory party without acknowledging that he was and is right about this and that it was an insight that eluded his predecessors. Brown, on the other hand, has no idea.

2) His personal qualities are a small matter compared to what his election as leader said about the Conservative party: it said that they were tired of being in opposition so they gave up that fatal habit that besets political parties from time to time - mistaking your 'grassroots' for the electorate.

But I'm wondering if there's anything new about this. The Conservatives have had a long tradition of absorbing policies and positions from their opponents starting from the adoption of much of the Whig tradition. Then there was Disraeli's One-Nationism and the extension of the franchise to working men in the towns. Since then the Conservatives have supported socialist policies such as the NHS or nationalisation if they've felt it suited their interests. And now we have David Cameron.

In this context you could argue that underestimating the Conservatives has been the default position for the parties of the left. JS Mill famously described the Tories as the 'stupid party'. The Liberals, on the other hand, were and are fantastically intelligent - it's just that they don't win elections anymore. Thatcher was underestimated, so was Major, so has Cameron been. It's also a pattern we've seen in the States too - most notably with Reagan and, I'd argue, with George W Bush. I can't think of any genetic reason why the parties of the centre-left should consistently forget that it is electorally fatal to underestimate your political opponents but they do this fairly consistently as far as I can see. It goes without saying that this is a losing strategy.

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