Last week Gaby Hinsliff wrote in the Guardian about David Cameron’s call for optimism and put forward the hypothesis that the political Left was basically optimistic and the Right pessimistic. She makes the point that the Right’s desire to keep things are they are (or were) leads to a fear of the future and associated negativity, she equates optimism with a desire for change and, in a political sense, a more interventionist style of government, a Labour government. I have a huge amount of admiration for Gaby but on this issue I feel she couldn’t be more wrong if she tried.
I can only assume that her views have been heavily influenced by the 1992 Conservative election win and the 1997 Labour win that followed it. The 92 result was heavily influenced by the national fear of a Kinnock led Labour government, a victory for pessimism rather than optimism. Tony Blair’s win in 97 was on the back of a huge wave of hope and desire for change. Based on these two general election results Gaby’s proposition stands up, but take a longer and wider view and I think it falls down.
I believe that Conservatism is a fundamentally optimistic political philosophy, but then I would say that wouldn’t I?
In 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was first elected to No 10 she represented a change from the doom-laden economic decline that was the hallmark of the late 1970s. She gave the British people a belief that the country could be more than just a post-colonial irrelevance and that our best years were very much ahead of us. The popular left-wing caricature of the 1980 as a terrible time is not born out by the massive national confidence that existed at the time. It could be argued that the confidence tipped over into cockiness and the economic crash that followed was the result but there was very little pessimism around during the 1980s heyday of Conservative politics.
Right of centre politicians believe in people, believe that for the most part they are good and driven by honourable motives. That’s why we naturally feel suspicious of big government dictating how people should live, you know, the way Left wing governments do. When those on the Left oppose greater choice they often cite the danger of people making “bad choices” as their reason, a pessimistic attitude if ever I saw one.
But it’s not just on policy issues where Right-of-centre positivity is evident. Boris Johnson’s relentless optimism is infectious and when tested electorally against the grumpy negativity of Ken Livingstone he was successful despite the toughest of political backdrops. Boris is all about hope and is one of the most popular people in the Conservative party. He is not alone.
David Cameron offered the Conservative party a massive leap outside its comfort zone during the leadership campaign in 2005. David Davis was a more traditional Tory in almost all his policy positions, a safer pair of hands, yet Cameron’s vision for the party was all about change, taking risk, admitting that our platform had been rejected by the voters and we needed a new one. If Gaby was right the Conservative party would have voted for Davis, in the end Cameron won with a landslide.
In the late 70s and early 80s Margaret Thatcher was seen by many traditional Tories as a huge risk, she offered the electorate an exciting alternative to the backward looking Labour party of the time.
Eds Miliband and Balls are betting their whole hand on the economic outlook being bad as we come towards the next general election. If it is they will say (wrongly and unfairly) that the bitter Tory medicine didn’t work and that our logically driven cuts did more harm than good. If the country is suffering they will expect to do better at the election. If we have turned the economic corner and things are getting better we will have a strong story to take to the country as we seek re-election. Put simply we have a vested interest in life being better and Labour have a vested interest in things getting worse.
Ask yourself which is the more optimistic position.