Much has already been written about the 2010 election campaign, and the formation of the first coalition government since 1940. Many column inches have also been filled speculating what kind of Prime Minister David Cameron will be, and if the coalition will be able to last the distance until May 2015. Is he indeed the face of a modern, more tolerant and inclusive Conservative Party, which has finally thrown off its nasty image? Or is he destined to become a modern day John Major, who in 1997 when he asked the question, “Who do you trust to run Britain?” got told unequivocally by the electorate – not you old Son!
Events have not been particularly kind to the coalition of late; in recent months we have seen several well-publicised U-turns on forestry sales, schools re-building programmes and the scrapping of EMA for 16-18 year olds. The hastily cobbled together replacement version may yet cost more than the envisaged £180 million.
Further unrest, particularly among the Liberal Democrats, has also caused a belated “re-think” on proposed NHS changes in England, and has created an impression of a government reacting to events, rather than shaping them. This reminded me of a piece I originally drafted some time ago, concerning the failure of most modern politicians to learn the lessons of history. Now may be a good time to re-visit it.
Take a look at the history of the Labour party and its leaders between the early sixties and early nineties.
Hugh Gaitskill – Harold Wilson – Jim Callaghan – long term opposition (Foot & Kinnock)
A popular, pragmatic leader who dies prematurely – is replaced by an election-winning, charismatic moderniser – who is replaced in turn by a more dour leader, who refuses the chance to secure a re-newed mandate when most polls put him ahead – economic collapse and public belligerence, followed by several election defeats and years of internal strife, until it is finally able to re-invent itself.
Now compare the period from early nineties to today and spot the similarities with the above passage.
John Smith – Tony Blair – Gordon Brown – Ed Miliband – long-term opposition?
Now suppose we were to swap the Labour party with the Tories over the same periods what do we get?
Harold Macmillan – Alec Douglas-Home – Ted Heath – Margaret Thatcher – John Major – followed by election defeat after election defeat, and years of internal strife until it was able to re-invent itself. The election of a new photogenic leader who puts the party ahead in the polls and makes them electable again – followed by…??
Macmillan’s premiership ended with scandal, Douglas-Home’s short term ended with a tired government which had run out of both money and ideas, and had lost most of its natural support. Ted Heath was seen as the-then modern face of the new Conservative Party, but his politics of consensus went down badly in militant Britain of the early seventies.
Margaret Thatcher embarked on the most radical reform of government and the public sector in modern times, only to be forced out after winning a third term of office by internal plotting and cabinet walkouts. Sound familiar?
Both John Major and Gordon Brown were seen as safe pairs of hands who would bring a calm stability to the country, simply because they were not like their immediate predecessors Thatcher and Blair. Yet their premierships too, became marked by internal strife, scandals both financial and sexual, faction fighting and abortive coup attempts.
I find the comparisons both eerie and frightening: they say those who fail to learn the lessons of history, are often condemned to repeat them. Looking at our political history over the past half century, one wonders how it is that the political classes always seem to make the same mistakes over and over again; a tradition the current government also seems unable to avoid at present.
Is their desire for power such, that in order to hold onto it, they in effect change nothing except to try and turn the country’s institutions and structures into their own sanitised image, all the while unaware – or even in denial – of what the majority of the population really wants?
Our political masters constantly complain when turnouts at elections continue to fall, and that respect for any and all politicians is at an all-time low. Disenchantment with the whole political process, together with the row over changing the electoral system, means that nowadays many of the most able of potential candidates, particularly those with experience of real life, who have run successful businesses and who generally know how to get the best from people, are wisely opting to do other things instead. In their place come a generation of trade union officials, former researchers, friends of school friends, failed journalists and others prepared to toe the party line, remain on message, and fill their boots at the taxpayers expense. Then after serving their time, they get rewarded with consultancies and speeches, in many instances working for the same organisations they either helped privatise or regulate while holding office.
Yes, Parallels of History is certainly an appropriate title. Will the openness and transparency Mr Cameron promises be realised, or will it be business as usual for those in the Westminster bubble? Will they have made a difference after they have changed possibly forever, the lives of millions of their fellow citizens, all in the name of modernisation and deficit reduction?
History may not be on our side I fear: for I can remember another young, charismatic, photogenic opposition leader who also replaced a discredited, tired-looking Prime Minster.
That was fourteen years ago – and we all remember how that story ended, don’t we?