‘Getting on with the job’ simply isn’t good enough
“I have a dream”, said Martin Luther King, in one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century. It was a dream he wanted to share and did share, and it was – and is – remembered not just for the eloquence of that initial delivery but for the righteousness and simplicity of the vision.
In doing so, he did what every great political leader does: inspires and reinforces confidence among his or her followers that their cause is worth devoting time, effort, money and possibly even personal safety towards because doing so will achieve a better and more hopeful world. They stand as a beacon of their movement, representative in word and deed of the shared vision that campaigners, converts and old hands alike, believe in.
Not every leader can match the eloquence of a King but that’s beside the point. What every leader can do, and should do, is set the mission, define the values and engender confidence in the journey. There are many reasons for the collapse in the Tory lead this Spring: the defensive Tory campaign set against Labour’s open engagement, the unpopular policies, and the failure of the Tories’ negative campaign all played their part. Behind that was the lack of a driving philosophy to unite and inspire activists and voters.
‘Keeping Corbyn out’ was tactically valid but nothing more; ‘getting on with the job’ – the effective mantra since the poll is almost a conscious disengagement from political engagement.
Indeed, Theresa May is currently showing all the political public leadership of an Accounts Executive making a presentation on the next quarter’s efficiency initiatives. The numbers might add up, the reasoning might be valid but frankly who cares? Who’s listening?
She presented a good case in point this week, when she gave a speech widely reported as strongly defending the free market (that language alone is significant: ‘defending’, not ‘promoting’). However, it received little coverage, not because it was a bad speech or because it was wrongly argued but because it didn’t tie into a higher driving philosophy – and also, frankly, because it was boring.
The sad thing is that when she came into Number Ten, she did lay out what might easily have become the defining tenets of Mayism, which were more or less classical One Nation Conservatism. In particular, she cited the addressing of inequality of opportunity for those from less advantaged households and communities.
There could easily have developed from that the themes of Aspiration, Opportunity and Fairness running through the government’s policies like the proverbial stick of Blackpool rock. Instead, the manifesto that the Tories cobbled together not only failed to pick up on those themes but appeared to actively punish those who’d aspired and taken their opportunities in life, when they were unlucky enough to need the state in later life: hardly fair.
Since the election, such domestic concerns haven’t even had a look in. While it’s understandable that Brexit dominates the government’s thinking, there should still be enough ministers left over to deliver a coherent set of policies that implement a vision of Conservatism in action attractive enough to persuade people to vote for the party on its own merits and not just because Corbyn isn’t trusted.
That, then, is the task before the Conservatives this next week. It will not be an easy one, with Brexit determining one media narrative and cabinet jostling producing another. But that is all the more reason to demonstrate leadership, define that vision, grab the agenda, inspire activists and persuadable voters, and put squabbling ministers in their place. The problem is that often when we wake up, it’s so hard to remember the dream we just had.