From the October 14, 2009 Daily Telegraph
October 14, 2009
by Irwin Stelzer
As voters digest what they have learnt, or believe they have learnt, in past weeks about what will be on offer in next year's general election, they might keep one overwhelmingly important fact in mind: little of the stuff that filled the post-conference press is critically relevant to their decision.
The man voters decide is best able to lead Britain for the next several years will most likely confront issues that cannot now be foreseen. Consider this. Americans elected Franklin Roosevelt in part because he promised to balance the runaway budget of Herbert Hoover, and in part because he promised to keep their sons out of foreign wars – which they took to mean any European wars. In the event, he went on a spending spree and became a great war leader. We elected George W Bush to cut taxes and spending, and to pursue a "modest" foreign policy. Events, dear boy, events, intervened.
You elected Margaret Thatcher to rein in the union barons and end resignation to decline, which she did, but more importantly she restructured the British economy with a wave of privatisations not contemplated at the time of her election. The good she did lived after her exit from Downing Street, and formed the since-squandered inheritance of New Labour.
And you elected Tony Blair to end Tory sleaze, hold a referendum on the proposed EU constitution, and restore sensible economic management after Britain was evicted from the European Monetary Union. You got none of those, but instead an involvement in a series of foreign wars, including Iraq, that were not on the horizon when Blair strode so confidently into No 10, and a recession you were promised could no longer happen.
You get the idea: the election is less about the issues now facing Britain, although those are mightily important, than about what we cannot even imagine will confront the new or (if the polls are misleading or things change) the incumbent prime minister. Which is why a few overlooked sentences in David Cameron's speech are probably more important than all the stuff that filled the papers during and after the Tory conference.
"I know that whatever plans you make in opposition, it's the unpredictable events that come to dominate a government. And it's your character, your temperament and your judgment, not your policies and your manifesto, that really make the difference." Which is why it is so important to consider the character of any national leader. Doubt that, and ask any American who voted for Richard Nixon!
We need not resort to pop psychologising. There are bits of evidence on which we can rely. Consider, for example, generosity of spirit. In his speech, Cameron remarked that Labour's mistakes were "done with the best intentions", and, "Let's be clear: not everything Labour did was wrong". Can anyone imagine Gordon Brown making a similar concession to his opponents, either within or outside his party? This is not merely a matter of style. It determines whether a prime minister will be able to restore civility to arguments over which policies best serve the nation.
Character is also an important determinant of whether that much-mentioned goal of "transparency" can be, if not achieved, at least approached by a government. No politician will ever be completely transparent, and no government should be, lest currencies crash or security be breached. But neither should any government leader build a tax policy on stealth, or sneak off to sign treaties in seclusion rather than in the formal ceremony attended by the press. Brown did; no one who knows Cameron deems that the kind of thing he is likely to do.
Most important, there is that intangible that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House: optimism. This was needed when America was in the grip of a malaise induced by the Iranian hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter's double-digit inflation and interest rates, and a sense that the country was about to become a second-class power, finally conquered, not by Japan's military, but by its industrial and exporting machine. When Cameron was contesting the leadership, and did his famous walkabout speech to the 2005 party conference, I wrote that he believed there could be a "Morning in Britain", just as Reagan believed in a "Morning in America" after the dark night of the Nixon and Carter years.
This aspect of character, or temperament, matters. Brown, many aspects of whose character are admirable, is pessimistic – pessimistic about the ability of people to decide for themselves what is best for their kids, pessimistic about their ability to choose courses of treatment when they are ill, pessimistic about the loyalty and abilities of all save a few colleagues, pessimistic about the ability of voters to handle unspun news. This leads to a belief in the need for highly centralised government, and more than a dollop of spin.
Cameron is optimistic on all or most of those scores. Hence his sunny "view from the summit" after the long climb back to prosperity. And his notion that individual responsibility can, indeed, be relied on, rather than an overweening government.
Character matters. You might not agree with my appraisal. No matter. Make your own. But don't overlook it while instead trying to do the maths on every competing proposal on taxes and such.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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