Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Birmingham

David Cameron's 'statesmanlike' promise on Tuesday to do whatever is necessary to save the nation and reach 'across the aisle', as they say in Congress, is one of the dirtiest and oldest political tricks, but no less effective for that. It is an offer which the government suffers from accepting or refusing. Two examples come to mind. One was Tony Blair's shameless exploitation of the Dunblane massacre of schoolchildren when he was still leader of the opposition. He offered to be 'united in grief' with John Major at the ceremony in the town. Mr Major had to agree, and was then comprehensively upstaged.

The more relevant comparison here is with Margaret Thatcher in January 1979. As the Winter of Discontent deepened, Mrs Thatcher was persuaded, very much against her instincts, to make a party political broadcast offering to set aside party differences in the interests of industrial peace. Luckily for her, Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, was in no position to accept. But she suddenly moved in people's minds from being a shrill, partisan figure to one who was fit to be Prime Minister.

Mr Cameron's intervention also held out the prospect 'for another day' of trying to re-examine and regenerate the free-market economy. It was good that he said this, because the Conservative reluctance to engage with the subject indicates a guilty conscience which is not justified. The current world disaster is the result of markets rigged by some bankers, politicians and central bankers, not of a market working transparently and freely. Interesting, though, that Mr Cameron did not use the word 'market'. He referred instead to our 'free enterprise system'. One can see why. But it would be a great pity if the word 'market' became a negative in political discourse. A physical market is the clearest embodiment of the beautiful idea that people can co-operate, under rules, for mutual advantage. By the way, I think this week (the Today programme, Monday) marked the first time a Chancellor of the Exchequer has used the word 'nationalisation' favourably since about 1976.

Mr Cameron got his biggest cheer for saying that we must not handle the crisis like America. But I find plenty of MPs who are envious of a political system in which elected representatives actually have the power to speak for those who chose them. Even though an emergency rescue may be necessary, there is something extraordinarily unappealing about extremely rich people asking much poorer ones to hand over the largest single transfer of wealth from private to public funds in the history of the world. It speaks well for the United States that the idea encounters consumer resistance. When you consider that our Parliament exists primarily to vote supply, it is amazing how it has gradually resigned its role. Money matters have been left to 'experts', with almost literally fatal results.

In the old days, it was considered bad form for the Conservative leader to attend his own party's conference. The presence of the leader, it was thought, might unduly influence the deliberations of the constituency associations. The leader would appear only on the last day, as a guest, to give his platform speech. David Cameron this week finds himself performing a modern, mediaconscious version of the same thing. Because of the sudden switch of theme from the Broken Society to the Broke Society, it is considered unseemly for the leader to be seen enjoying himself. …

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