Both competence and purpose are needed to lead for Britain

by Jonathan Todd

Politics as usual is under pressure. The old moves aren’t working.

We say they are “out of touch”. They say we are an “unaffordable risk”. The attacks of both Labour and the Tories claim that the other cannot lead for the whole nation due to possession by sectional interests; be that the mateocracy, bankers, or News International; the trade unions, the public sector, or welfare claimants.

Rebuttals evade charges of sectionalism. Attacks claim national leadership. At the same time, what we are, as a state and people, is fundamentally questioned by Alex Salmond and the Eurozone crisis.

And then, increasing support for smaller parties, from our first Green MP in Brighton to Respect’s revival in Bradford, create a myriad of further challenges to the national leadership sought by David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

To a significant extent, all of this can be thought, in Marxist parlance, the superstructure to the economic base: an economic crisis, which has impaired UK growth more than the 1930s depression, has both created an existential crisis for the Euro and with it the EU, as well as opportunities for smaller parties.

As much as economic perceptions will do more to determine how votes are cast at the general election than anything else, it would be a mistake to think that everything in our politics can be explained in these terms.

While economic management is the primary competence issue, competency is a means to an end.

Salmond doesn’t want an independent Scotland because he thinks himself a more competent technocrat than Cameron. And arguments for the union based upon exactly how many pounds and pence Scotland would be better or worse off, expose only the hole in the argument where a bigger purpose should be.

Salmond has driven this debate by making the strongest appeal to the hearts, as well as the heads, of Scotland.

Both the hearts and the heads of the British need to be seized for Cameron or Miliband to provide national leadership.

Competence, especially on the economy, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for this leadership. Competence for a purpose would suffice. But, as Pat Mcfadden has convincingly argued, Cameron’s government has neither competence nor purpose.

Cameron’s statecraft has, unintentionally, adhered to conservative Michael Oakeshott’s well-known dictum about “neither starting-place nor appointed destination… [and where] the enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel”.

And, in so doing, has revealed its weakness. When a government lacks an appointed destination, a purpose behind which it unites, it is more easily buffeted by events; it is harder to keep afloat.

When asked, while in opposition, why he wanted to be prime minister, Cameron replied: “Because I think I would be quite good at it.”

This is the response of the born to misrule, not one possessed by a sure sense of the country they want to create.

Now, less than half way to a 2015 general election, as Iain Martin recently said on Newsnight, it is hard to see how the government can be re-launched; all they have left for this parliament is a flat-lining economy and Lords reform.

George Osborne’s economic strategy once gave the government something to unite behind; eliminating the deficit an animating purpose. As Vince Cable’s frustrations attest, this failing strategy has come to divide the governing parties, as has, of course, that leading priority of the hard pressed public, Lords reform.

In the absence of a purpose, the government are increasingly desperate in their attempts to associate Labour with sectional interests.

If Francis Maude’s jerry can comments were intended to provoke public annoyance with trade unions then they are the most ill considered contribution to a negative strategy that will intensify as, consistent with Martin’s expectations, the horizons of the government narrow.

We should pre-prepare our rebuttals, which is why our policies on the funding of politics and welfare are important. It is harder to claim that we are in the pocket of the trade unions when we accept limits on what they can give to the party or that we treat welfare claimants more favourably than others when we are clear that work should pay.

The omnishambles has so rapidly become so entrenched that the term already seems clichéd. However, it remains vital that we expose as fully as possible every instance of shambolic governance.

They corrode the government’s standing, making the public more willing to listen to what we say. Which must include answers to the big questions facing Britain: of course, the economy but also the substance of new devolution settlements for Scotland and the English regions, Britain’s role in the EU but outside the Euro, and health and social care systems capable of meeting the challenges of ageing.

We either lead these debates – so transmitting a sense of national purpose adequate to give us purchase on the future – or we allow others to lead them, which will happen even if Cameron is too weak to do so. The emergence of smaller parties is indicative of a public that won’t wait for answers from the more established parties if they are not forthcoming.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “Both competence and purpose are needed to lead for Britain”

  1. Nick says:

    For an economist, you’re coming across as particularly ignorant.

    What’s the strategy for dealing with

    State pension
    State second pension
    Civil service pension
    Black holes in local government pensions
    Nuclear decommissioning

    ie. Bar Gilts, all those pesky debts that are massive but hidden off the books?

  2. Ed says:

    How do you know that Cameron’s adherence to Oakeshott’s dictum is only accidental? Oakeshott is a Conservative philosopher, Cameron is a Conservative politician.

  3. uglyfatbloke says:

    A pretty good analysis I would say, exept that itseems you have fundametally misunderstood Alex salmond and the gnats (SNP). Their objective is to dissolve the Treaty of Union of 1707, that is to say the union of the two parliaments. It is not clear that there is any reason at all why this should affect the standing of the rest of the UK. Though strictly speaking the treaty involves only the signatories – England and Scotland – in practice England, Wales and N.Ireland would doubtless copntiue to be called the UK. I imagine Salmond (and Swinney, Sturgeon, Robertson and Hosie et al.) do think they would be more competent than Cameron, Osborne, Cable, Milliband and Balls, but that’s really not saying much.

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