'Let’s show the world some fight!' That was the Prime Minister’s message to the Tory Party Conference and to the country in his leader’s speech on Wednesday. Times might be tough; they might even get worse. But Britain had the spirit and the future could be sunny again. In short, we should be optimists. But did he offer enough to justify his own optimism, or was he failing to own up to reality?
The whole tenor of Mr Cameron’s speech was in sharp contrast to that conveyed by Vince Cable, the Business Secretary in the Coalition Government, when addressing his own Liberal Democrat conference two weeks ago. Mr Cable painted a deeply pessimistic picture of the future. He said that Britain was facing 'the economic equivalent of war.' And he added: 'When my staff saw my draft of this speech they said: ‘We can see the grey skies, where are the sunny uplands?’ I am sorry, I can only tell it as I see it. People aren’t thinking about ten years ahead when they are worrying about how to survive the next ten days to payday.'
The ‘sunny uplands’ were exactly where the Prime Minister wanted to focus his audience’s attention. He said: “Frankly, there’s too much can’t-do sogginess around. We need a sharp, focused, can-do country'. He added: 'Britain never had the biggest population, the largest land mass, the richest resources – but we had the spirit.' And he concluded: 'Remember it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog'.
Clearly Mr Cameron wants to stop us talking ourselves into a funk. He didn’t actually quote Franklin Roosevelt but the message was the same: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. What we need to do is talk ourselves up. That approach too has an American echo: there it’s called ‘boosterism’.
The term goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century when American pioneers were pushing the frontier out west. Politicians on the far edges of the expanding country would 'boost' their particular town or locality, claiming that theirs was the place that had the hardest working people, the toughest spirit, the best opportunities, the sunniest future. Such boosting was aimed at getting more people to come out there, attracting more investment and so fulfilling its own claim. It’s an approach politicians have adopted ever since.
Some argue that it is the essential ingredient of political leadership, a leadership that the Prime Minister himself emphasised and laid claim to in his speech. And history shows that it can be decisive. Many historians argue that Churchill’s real contribution in the dark days of 1940 was to persuade the British people that they were not the defeatist appeasers they probably actually were, but indomitable bulldogs who would never give in to Hitler no matter how daunting the challenge they faced. In Mr Cameron’s language, the British were told they had 'the spirit'.
Critics say that such boosterism is all very well and good but it’s not sufficient. There needs to be some beef too. The Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, remarked in response to Mr Cameron’s speech that, when Churchill rallied the country 'he did not offer exhortation alone, but a military strategy'. It is the alleged absence of such a strategy in the face of Mr Cable’s 'economic equivalent of war' that provides the Prime Minister’s opponents with their main charge.
Their claim is that the Government’s economic strategy is pretty much exclusively about cutting the deficit and that this offers nothing to promote growth in the short-term. Indeed, they say, it could make the problem worse. Some even accuse Mr Cameron of not fully understanding the problem. A draft of the speech used to brief the press beforehand contained the lines: 'The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households – all of us – paying off the credit card and the store card bills.' Were we all to do so at the same time, they pointed out, the economy would sink into a slump as demand evaporated. The Prime Minister hastily changed his text.
The Bank of England followed the Prime Minister’s speech by announcing that it is to put another £75bn into the economy through its policy of quantitative easing in the hope that this will increase growth. And the Government itself insists it does have a growth strategy separate from its deficit-cutting plans and promises further measures to promote it next month. But few commentators expect any package of so-called 'supply-side' measures to make a huge difference.
That’s because the biggest problems facing the British economy and those likely to prevent us from reaching sunny uplands any time soon, lie outside the Government’s control. This is why his critics think Mr Cameron’s boosterism will prove to be all talk.
The biggest problem is that the eurozone, where we sell nearly 50% of our exports, is on the brink of a crisis that could plunge the whole world back into recession and worse. Everyone now expects Greece to default on its debts at some point, and other weak eurozone countries could follow suit. Such sovereign default would have a devastating effect on Europe’s banks. The need is to recapitalise them before this happens in order to try to minimise the damage.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, has been urging this course of action for some time. Indeed he argues that the eurozone needs to go further and become much more integrated than it is now. But he can only urge: he has no power to make it happen and the eurozone leaders are proving pretty slow at doing it themselves.
It is not that anyone is saying (as they used to do) that this relative impotence shows just how little influence Britain has by not being part of the club. Even the most fervent British europhiles acknowledge that if we were indeed in the club (belonging to the eurozone), our prospects would be much worse. Nonetheless, it means that the Prime Minister is not really able to match his boosterish rhetoric with the sort of specific measures to deal with the problem where it really lies.
In this context, what is the best pose to strike? Is it better to try and boost our spirits with a speech of get-up-and-go optimism such as Mr Cameron delivered, or to make us face the stark reality of our predicament with a speech of gloomy pessimism such as Mr Cable made?
Nearly a century ago, the American writer, Sinclair Lewis, put the choice like this: 'The booster's enthusiasm is the motive force which builds up our American cities. Granted. But the hated knocker's jibes are the check necessary to guide that force. In summary then, we do not wish to knock the booster, but we certainly do wish to boost the knocker.'
What’s your view?
- Was Mr Cameron right to talk up our prospects or Mr Cable right to underline the difficulties we face?
- Do you think it is the necessary job of a prime minister to try to boost our confidence and optimism no matter what the circumstances?
- Do you think the Prime Minister’s boosterism is justified or simply empty rhetoric?
- Do you think the additional money the Bank of England is pumping into the economy will stimulate growth?
- And are you personally optimistic or pessimistic about our prospects?