Public Service In The Age Of Trump

Donald Trump Ronald Reagan comparison photo

Achieving good outcomes is rightly the key barometer of success in government, but it is not everything – selflessly serving the public with honour and dedication matters too

Today I had the pleasure of attending a London Film Festival screening of “The Final Year”, a documentary by Greg Barker focusing on the last year of President Obama’s administration with a specific focus on foreign policy.

Regular readers will know that foreign policy is not my area of expertise, and rarely discussed on this blog. I only know enough to recognise that I am not qualified to pass blanket judgment on diplomatic and foreign policy issues which are fiendishly complex, rely on tremendously detailed knowledge of foreign cultures and regimes, and often require unbearably difficult decisions to be made in fraught circumstances with competing political demands, imperfect information and no crystal ball to see the future.

But it was difficult to watch the documentary and fail to conclude that the main protagonists – former Secretary of State John Kerry, United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – discharged their duties diligently and with honour. One may not have agreed with all that these individuals did or the political outlook which guided their actions while serving in the Obama administration, but if so these were mere policy differences, not alleged deficiencies of character or behaviour.

It was also difficult to view the documentary and not feel a pang of shame at the composition and antics of the present administration, which even at its dubious best never seemed as functional as its predecessor, and which will certainly now struggle to attract talented, conscientious public servants given the scandals and negative publicity constantly roiling the White House.

Human beings have a tendency to impugn motives and presume character defects in people in public life based on our political differences with them. If we disagreed with the policies of Barack Obama then he also conveniently happened to be a dangerous socialist interloper who simply doesn’t love America the way that you or I love America. And if we disagreed with Mitt Romney or John McCain it was because they were heartless, selfish individuals devoid of charity or empathy, not due to the fact that these conservatives simply saw a different pathway to achieving a just and prosperous society.

This is not a new phenomenon. Republicans questioned the motives and character of Democrats in the Clinton administration; Democrats questioned the motives and character of Republicans in the Bush administration; Republicans had a very lucrative turn questioning the motives and character of Democrats in the Obama administration, and now everybody but the most partisan loyalists can be found expressing grave doubts about the motives character of many of those serving in the Trump administration.

And historically speaking, many of these negative judgments have been unfair. Most staffers in any administration serve out of a sense of public duty with real respect for the offices which they hold, and to impugn their motives at a time in their lives when they are trying to do good is churlish, particularly when there is no evidence of malfeasance.

But this time it feels different. Be it known or suspected acts of misconduct in office or the very public and unatoned-for personal failings of senior officials, the things we already know about less than nine months into the Trump administration should give us grave concern about the calibre of leadership in Washington, regardless of whether or not we agree with the general thrust of policy.

A few weeks ago, the masterful Peggy Noonan (speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan and a personal hero of mine) wrote a particularly moving column for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she conjured a moment of pure escapist fantasy, an alternate reality where all of the dreadful things we know to be true about people in the Trump administration – from the president on downwards – turned out to be nothing more than silly misunderstandings.

Noonan wrote:

I saw this: The exhausted woman on the shelter cot was surrounded by stressed children when Melania came over, bent down and asked, “How are you doing?” The woman said “Well—hurricane.” She realized who she was talking to and got flustered. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. They were flat ankle-boots, the kind you wear on the street or the park, only of the finest leather. “Thank you,” said Melania. She saw the woman’s soggy sneakers. “What size do you wear?” she asked, “Oh, 9,” said the woman. “They got bigger with the kids.”

Melania took off her boots and put them on the woman’s feet. She did this in a way that was turned away from the press, so they wouldn’t see. The woman’s daughter said, “Mommy, they’re nice.” Melania took from her bag a pair of white sneakers, put them on, and said, “Oh good, these are so comfortable.” They talked some more and Melania left and the mother looked to her kids and said, softly, “These are the first lady’s shoes.”

[..] This happened just before the Mnuchin story got cleared up. The Treasury secretary had not asked for a government plane to take him on his honeymoon. His request got all bollixed up in transmission, but there was a paper trail. It turned out he was waiting at the airport with his new wife when he saw a guy in Army fatigues comforting a young woman in a white and yellow dress. She was crying. Mr. Mnuchin sent over an aide to find out what’s wrong.

The guy in fatigues had literally just flown in from Kabul. He and the woman had just married, in a chapel down the street. They’d been bumped from their honeymoon flight to Bermuda. Mr. Mnuchin said: “Give them my plane. Louise—we’re flying commercial.” They booked seats on the next flight to France and went to duty free, where they bought the best champagne and placed it in her Hermès bag. They wrote a note: “Every soldier on leave deserves a honeymoon, every bride deserves champagne.” The couple discovered the bag on the plush leather seat just as the pilot was saying: “Please be seated and buckle up, we’ve got special clearance.”

The column continued in the same hopeful vein – Trump was shown to be unexpectedly humble and empathetic beneath his braggadocious facade, and at one point Hillary Clinton’s post-election book “What Happened” turned out not to be a self-indulgent, self-exculpatory exercise in blame-shifting but rather a sincere and thoughtful atonement for the collective sins of the American political establishment.

But of course, none of these positive, hopeful things actually happened. In all cases, the facts as first reported by the media turned out to be the depressing truth. Noonan said of her reverie:

It made me feel proud, like there’s hope for our political class.

That is what I saw this week.

I should note—this part is true—that I saw much of it while anesthetized for a minor surgical procedure. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful. Cheerful. Proud. I give it to you.

It is impossible to read Peggy Noonan’s column without aching for a time when public service was a calling reserved for people of character and principle, even if that time exists only in our imaginations, false memories or old episodes of The West Wing.

This is not to say that the Obama administration represented some high watermark of moral behaviour in office. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was less than truthful more than once in his testimony to Congress, while the IRS under senior executive Lois Lerner was found to be singling out conservative organisations for additional tax scrutiny and harassment. But even adjusting for anti-conservative bias in the media, the Obama administration comported itself with considerably more dignity than has thus far been shown by the constantly rotating cast of Trump officials. And it would take a significant change of trajectory, bordering on the miraculous, for this assessment to change.

Is it really possible that in four or eight years’ time we will look back on the people who serve in the present administration, who now represent the federal government to its citizens and the United States of America to the world, and think of them as sincere, hardworking and well-intentioned (if sometimes flawed and mistaken) public servants?

Is Rex Tillerson – a man who showed little interest in foreign policy beyond its applicability to the oil industry prior to his nomination as Secretary of State – presently losing sleep at night trying to implement a foreign policy vision that he sincerely believes will make America and the world safer and more prosperous, as John Kerry did? Are Trump’s other cabinet secretaries maintaining the dignity of their offices and the commitment to fiscal rectitude which is supposed to be a fundamental Republican selling point, or are they all behaving like former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, abusing their offices and the public trust by showering themselves with unnecessary perks on the public dime?

And even if Trump apologists, knowing the administration to be deficient in these areas, are willing to sacrifice these qualities for the greater good of bringing down an establishment which ironically seems to be strangely ascendant within the current White House, are the benefits of this governmental shock therapy really worth the side-effects of employing such a motley group of charlatans and opportunists to follow in the footsteps of better men and women?

Watching “The Final Year” at the Odeon Leicester Square today, I could certainly understand how people might feel sceptical or even angry about some of John Kerry’s priorities as Secretary of State and those of his former boss, or be rubbed up the wrong way by the opinionated Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power. Theirs is a specific worldview with which not everybody agrees. But it is also evident that they are patriots one and all, serving the country that they love to the best of their abilities and in line with the values which they believe were twice vindicated by the election of Barack Obama as president. Based on what we know, it would certainly be very difficult to accuse any of these Obama administration alumni of being self-serving, superficial or corrupt in their duties.

I hope that when the time comes to look back on the current presidency, we will be able to say the same of all those who presently serve in the Trump administration.

I sincerely hope so, but I am not optimistic.

 

The Final Year will be released in cinemas in the US & UK in January 2018.

       

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Is There Hope For Conservatism In Generation Z?

Generation Z conservatism

Generation Z does not automatically share the same predilection for leftist identity politics as the Millennial generation which precedes them. But can conservatives do enough to appeal to this newest group of emerging voters?

Many conservatives, myself included, have been worrying a lot about how we can better resist the relentless encroachment of leftist identity politics and the regressive, illiberal social justice warriors at the movement’s vanguard. But what if we have now reached Peak SJW? What if the spell is wearing off and a new generation is emerging with less time for the pervasive victimhood culture spawned by the 1960s radicals and their fragile children? And if so, how can the Right appeal to this generation (or at least cease driving them toward the parties of the Left)?

These are the questions explored by Sam White over at Country Squire magazine, in a thought-provoking piece which explores how conservatives might find favour with (at least some) young people again.

Sam writes:

Corbynism has been painted as rebellious and anti-establishment, but underneath the endorsement from Stormzy and the party leader’s appearance at Glastonbury (not that Glastonbury is pushing any boundaries) it’s nothing of the sort. If the current Labour leadership’s schemes were ushered in, they’d lead to constraint and conformity. And the new establishment would be authoritarian to a degree that its youthful supporters had not felt before.

There wouldn’t be much of a celebratory mood in the air then, as it slowly became clear that all that rebelliousness was nothing more than a carefully-managed means to an end.

Conservatives should be highlighting all this, and at the same time pushing the message that a free market model provides the best possible mechanism by which for changes to occur organically. Crucially, that model is how we safeguard the capacity to change, but it isn’t a change in itself.

If the Conservative Party were to realign around its libertarian element, then it might achieve resonance among younger voters, particularly those who come after the Millennial Red Army. Generation Z are shaping up to be open to a conservative message, and will surely react against the postmodern nonsense bought into by Millennials. Conservatives must be ready to meet them.

And the message should be simple: that the right-wing will safeguard classical liberal values and ditch victimhood-fetishizing identity politics. And it ought also to be made clear that socialism represents the polar opposite of all this: it’s a half-fossilized ideology that would usher in micro-management, politically correct hectoring, and state imposition.

The idea of the Conservative Party realigning around its libertarian element seems ludicrous at first glance, considering how few genuinely small-government, pro-liberty MPs exist within the party (and the even smaller subset of those whose views are vaguely coherent and pragmatic rather than ideological fantasy).

But then one remembers how Jeremy Corbyn first captured his party and then vast swathes of the country with a hard left message that his opponents and nearly all the commentariat dismissed as being terminally unpopular, and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so unrealistic. One also thinks of how devotees of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were able to establish a beachhead within a Conservative Party which still fully bought into the statist post-war consensus. And suddenly the idea of a radical shift in the Conservative Party seems feasible, if still unlikely.

Of course, such a shift would require somebody with vision and political courage – a conservative version of Jeremy Corbyn. And necessarily somebody without very much to lose, given the high probability of failure. Like him or not, Jeremy Corbyn possesses this conviction in spades, and even many people who are none too keen on 1970s socialism respond warmly to his candidness and the fact that he is unwilling to apologise for his beliefs. It is hard to see anybody within the current Conservative Cabinet playing a similar role on the Right. Indeed, all of the candidates most hotly tipped to succeed Theresa May are either grasping opportunists (Boris Johnson) or bland nonentities with no clearly articulable political philosophy of their own (Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd).

But even if the Tories were to search deep within their party and find a leader with moral and ideological backbone, could they make political traction with any group of voters by standing up to the identity politics Left? Sam White argues yes:

Conservatives needn’t pay regard to the social justice diktats which have taken over left-liberal discourse and muffled people’s rational capabilities. Simply by speaking directly and honestly, the politically correct narrative can be disrupted. And if that ruffles some left-wing feathers then all the better, let’s refuse to apologise and then offend them some more.

[..] The Conservative Party ought to be rejecting SJW new-leftism unequivocally. Why not just state it clearly? If you value the sovereignty of the individual, if you want the freedom to say what you like, create what you want, and make of yourself what you will, then steer well clear of collectivist movements.

A serious party would throw out badly defined hate crime regulations, reject the CPS’s garbage about policing what people say online, and get a grip on the police force so they stop tweeting photos of their trans-friendly, rainbow coloured cars.

There’s a gap in the market right now as common sense, libertarian ideals go under-represented, and there’s a Conservative Party that needs revitalising.

I don’t disagree with Sam in principle, but I do believe that the approach he advocates would require a degree of political courage and holding one’s nerve that I have not yet seen in any potential future leader, with the partial exception of Jacob Rees-Mogg (who disqualifies himself from serious consideration in several other ways and is therefore irrelevant).

We have seen time and again the ability of the social justice, identity politics Left to summon national outrage, to raise a mob, to hound people from their jobs and careers and even to incite violence when they sense a threat to their illiberal worldview. Even when it transpires that the target of their fury is innocent of the charges levelled against them, the damage is often done and no retraction or apology is forthcoming – see the inquisition against decent people like scientists Dr. Matt Taylor and Sir Tim Hunt.

We have seen, too, the unwillingness of senior politicians to take even the mildest stand against a leftist orthodoxy which demands 100 percent compliance on pain of excommunication from polite society. Even on his way out as Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron equivocated and resigned rather than stick to his guns and defend what were presumably his true, religiously-motivated feelings about gay marriage. And regardless of one’s feelings about gay marriage (this blog is supportive), how many conservatives will have watched these various witch hunts play out in the news and concluded that to speak out on other issues like climate change, the gender pay gap, affirmative action or radical gender theory means career suicide and likely social ostracisation as a bonus?

In short, it would take almost superhuman bravery to stand in the face of this potential hurricane. Even Jeremy Corbyn didn’t have to fear such public opprobrium for stating his political beliefs. When running for the Labour leadership, despite being on record as supportive of dictatorial leftist regimes and terrorist groups from the IRA to Hamas, Corbyn was still very welcome in polite society, and regarded at worst by most his critics as a harmless curiosity from the past. By contrast, if a conservative politician were to publicly question or doubt the “institutional racism” of swathes of British society, denounce affirmative action or even state that there are just two sexes and genders, the dinner party invitations and television interview requests would dry up instantaneously. To even state political opinions held by a plurality of people effectively makes one persona non grata in Westminster and other elite circles.

Therefore, given the hostile environment and lack of courage seen in our politics, we will likely have to look for salvation from outside, in the form of Generation Z. As Sam White correctly points out, this emerging generation – unscarred by the great recession, less coddled (so far) by helicopter parenting, more individualistic and sceptical of identity politics narratives preaching collective racial guilt – may yet react against the politics of their older siblings and illiberal, leftist parents.

And this is why it is more vital than ever that the Conservative Party stop bickering over which of three or four identikit centrists replace Theresa May, and instead articulate a positive conservative vision with concrete policies that actually inspire young people rather than continue to screw them over. In short, they need to do precisely the opposite of what they accomplished during their car crash of a party conference in Manchester.

The newly-minted young adults of today are still politically up for grabs. There is nothing written in stone which decrees that they must become the perpetual property of a moralising left-wing movement which combines 1970s statism with 21st century, self-obsessed identity politics. Many of these new voters can still be called to a higher, better and more conservative purpose if only somebody was there to show them that there is more to conservatism than droning on about the deficit, apologising for their principles, chasing after Labour and messing up Brexit.

Tick tock, fellow conservatives.

 

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Chasing Liberty

David Green, author of the upcoming “Inclusive Capitalism: He we can make independence work for everyone“, has a good piece in the Spectator about the extent to which the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the goal of maximising liberty. Bonus points to Green for quoting Michael Oakeshott, with whose work I gained a very passing familiarity and appreciation thanks to reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog back in the day.

Green writes:

There is also much to be learnt from the great philosopher of freedom, Michael Oakeshott, who tried to put his finger on the fundamental truths that are worthy of defence. Our freedom, he said, rests on mutually supporting liberties none of which stands alone:

‘It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor from parliamentary government, nor from the writ of habeas corpus, nor from the independence of the judiciary … but from what each signifies and represents, namely the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power.’

In short, he says, we consider ourselves to be free because: ‘no one in our society is allowed unlimited power – no leader, faction, party or “class”, no majority, no government, church, corporation, trade or professional association or trade union.’

Precisely. Yet tell anyone today that there are no “overwhelming concentrations of power” in our society and they will laugh in your face, quite rightly. At least in the 1970s the enormous power of the trades union (bad though it was) balanced out the power of the state and ensured that there were at least two competing interest groups. Now there is no such balance. The unions were de-fanged, which was right and necessary. But the decline of religion, waning influence of the church and the gradual capture of arts, culture and academia by metro-leftist ideas mean there has been no real opposition to prevailing policies inside or outside Parliament.

Today, recent anti-establishment backlashes including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – while dissimilar in every other way – are united by the popular belief that recent government policy had served the interests of only one interest group, the university-educated metropolitan elite, with no countervailing force able to successfully represent other interests. Certainly the Labour Party gave up any pretence of supporting or representing their working class constituents well over a decade ago.

Green goes on to argue that one reason the pro-liberty wing of the Tory party have lost so much ground to the inept clan of statists and authoritarians like Theresa May is that their definition of liberty has become too narrow, and their view of how to achieve it too simplistic.

It is not enough to argue that capitalism is great and to shout hysterical warnings about Venezuela and North Korea in the expectation that this will convince an increasingly sceptical population to embrace a status quo which is evidently failing so many of them. And the more one lays into Jeremy Corbyn and his merry band of socialists without revising and promoting one’s own definition of freedom, the more one appears to be an apologist for the crony corporatism that the Left now falsely claim represents the entirety of capitalism.

Money quote:

But apologists for capitalism in its current form are undermining what is mutually beneficial about a market economy. If we want to continue adding to our prosperity we must accept that it depends on constant adaptation to fluctuating demand for goods and services through the system of voluntary exchange at freely adjusting prices. We must enjoy the personal freedom to react to incessant alteration of the conditions affecting the occupations available to us and the products we are able to buy. The mistake of free-market fundamentalists is to assume that this freedom to adapt implies minimal government. But freedom does not depend on the absence of government. We must learn to choose between government actions that are compatible with a free economy and those that are not. Compatible actions included contract law, measures to prevent the abuse of private power through cartels and monopolies, and laws regulating corporations, including limited liability.

And this is just one of many things that this year’s Conservative Party Conference and Theresa May’s meltdown of a speech failed to accomplish. The prime minister made a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the crisis of faith in capitalism in her speech, but when she later called out the dysfunctional energy market, her solution of national price caps was straight from the leftist, Ed Miliband playbook. The remedy proposed did not seek to enhance the liberty of either the producer or consumer – perhaps by finding ways to promote competition, break cartels, lower barriers to entry or increase transparency and information for consumers – but merely sought to impose the imposition of a state-mandated settlement on both parties.

Like the entirety of the Left, today’s Conservative Party seeks to regulate outcomes rather than provide a level playing field and equal opportunities. We see exactly this explicitly stated in Theresa May’s audit of racial disparities, which blindly looks for inequities of outcome and attributes them to racism rather than looking at underlying demographic, social or systemic issues.

So fearful has the Right become of the Left, so desperate are they to shed their image of being the “nasty party”, so totally have they absorbed the Left’s narrative about 21st century Britain being some terribly racist dystopia that policy is now made according to the headlines the Tories hope to generate rather than the results they want to see. No wonder they also lack the courage to stand up to leftist smearing of capitalism and make the positive case for free markets.

David Green is quite right to remind us that promoting maximum freedom does not mean a complete government withdrawal from regulation and oversight. But Theresa May’s government (as with David Cameron’s before) goes too far, abusing this principle by trying to regulate both inputs and outcomes, and prioritising the latter over any commitment to defending liberty.

 

Theresa May - Building a country that works for everyone

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Claudius Goes To Manchester

Theresa May conservative party conference speech - building a country that works for everyone - set malfunction - 2

God help us

Expectations and appearances matter in politics. That’s why the campaign teams of mediocre politicians try to lower expectations before any major upcoming event while exaggerating the strength and prospects of the opposition. This creates the illusion of forward momentum when their candidate triumphantly clears the very low bar set for them.

Perhaps the most extreme example of expectation-fiddling in recent history occurred in 2004 when George W. Bush’s strategist Michael Dowd tried to tamp down expectations for W’s performance in an upcoming presidential debate by declaring that his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, was “the best debater since Cicero“. Of course, anybody who had ever met John Kerry or heard him speak knew full well that the former Massachusetts senator is more Claudius than Cicero. The overblown comparison insulted people’s intelligence.

Well intentionally or not, Theresa May and the Conservative Party could hardly have set expectations for their own side any lower before they assembled in Manchester this week. The prime minister’s speech was deliberately trailed as a platform for her to tell her own restive cabinet members to stop undermining her and bickering with one another, hardly the sign of a confident, outward-looking party. Yet somehow the Tories still managed to underperform spectacularly. Claudius, not Cicero, turned up in Manchester.

In the end, George Osborne never got the chance to have Theresa May chopped up in bags in his freezer. The prime minister fell to bits – ideologically, physically and in terms of her dwindling authority – right on stage in front of everybody at the Manchester Central convention centre this afternoon.

One cannot be too uncharitable about a politician suffering a coughing fit, a set malfunction and a stage intruder (heads need to roll in the PM’s security detail), all in the same speech. But neither will a number of Conservatives be in any mood to make excuses for Theresa May after she declared war on the small government libertarian wing at last year’s conference, led the party to glorious failure in this year’s general election and then showed up in Manchester with a ragtag bag of Ed Miliband’s rejected policies as her master plan for fending off Jeremy Corbyn.

Some hopeful souls believe that the prime minister’s on-stage meltdown will somehow redound to the benefit of the Tories – either because Theresa May’s coughing fit conveniently masks the gaping lack of conservative vision and principle at the heart of the speech (her speechwriters actually plagiarised a line from The West Wing in a desperate attempt to add profundity), or because the British love of the plucky underdog will evoke feelings of pity. Because embarrassment and pity are just the emotions you want to send the party faithful away with and broadcast to the nation after conference.

James Kirkup takes this view:

What are the politics of the torment of Theresa May?  There are two outcomes, very different, and this is why, for once, a conference speech really could be decisive.

One is that people will look at their Prime Minister struggling and spluttering and see a woman soldiering on in the face of adversity, in spite of her own limitations and in the face of numerous obstacles in her path.  As I suggested a long time ago, back in June, there is a British fondness for the story of the frail and faulty hero who keeps fighting even when things are bleak.

The problem is that only the British have this strange affection for the plucky underdog, and Theresa May has to play the part of British prime minister to the whole world, not just to a pitying domestic audience. We may feel a pang of sympathy every time she literally falls to pieces in front of our eyes. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel will not. They will eat her alive. And by extension our international rivals and enemies will eat all of us alive too, because a weak and nervous prime minister puts more than their own political career in jeopardy.

This is not – repeat, not – about a coughing fit, as some dutiful conservative commentators are now suggesting as they rush to the prime minister’s defence:

And to be fair to her, Theresa May dealt with what must have been a mortifying situation with quick wits, grace and humour. I would not wish that rolling series of calamities on anyone.

No, this is about every nervous television interview where Theresa May looks like a deer caught in the headlights. It’s about her cowardly failure to participate in a televised debate with Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders in this year’s general election. It’s about her abysmal judgment in calling a general election in which she frittered away the Tory majority. It’s about her lack of leadership following the Grenfell Tower fire and recent terror attacks.

But more than all of this, it is about the yawning void where a positive, ambitious and genuinely conservative vision for Britain should sit. Margaret Thatcher also once suffered a coughing fit during a speech, but it didn’t threaten to end her premiership because unlike the present incumbent, Thatcher was a good prime minister with abundant vision, courage and clearly defined principles. By contrast, the emptiness of Theresa May’s conference speech matched the aimlessness of her premiership, and the farce of its delivery painfully reflected her administration’s “limitless capacity” for self-inflicted political wounds.

So what was actually in the speech from hell? Well, first came the contrition:

But we did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short. It was too scripted. Too presidential. And it allowed the Labour Party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change. I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.

Job done. And then, like several failed politicians have also tried to do before her, Theresa May attempted to make the phrase “the British Dream” a thing:

A little over forty years ago in a small village in Oxfordshire, I signed up to be a member of the Conservative Party. I did it because it was the party that had the ideas to build a better Britain.  It understood the hard work and discipline necessary to see them through.

And it had at its heart a simple promise that spoke to me, my values and my aspirations: that each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future. That each generation should live the British Dream. And that dream is what I believe in.

But what the General Election earlier this year showed is that, forty years later, for too many people in our country that dream feels distant, our party’s ability to deliver it is in question, and the British Dream that has inspired generations of Britons feels increasingly out of reach.

This doesn’t work. The American Dream is deeply routed in American culture and history, and it has a resonance which people living thousands of miles away understand. The British Dream sounds derivative, because it is. At best, it invites a second-class comparison with the United States and at worst it just sounds vague and woolly. The idea that each new generation should be more prosperous than the last is perfectly fine, but there is no need to coin an awkward phrase in order to capture something so self-evident.

Then the open boasts about stealing Labour policy begin:

And a National Living Wage – giving a pay rise to the lowest earners – introduced not by the Labour Party, but by us, the Conservative Party. So let us never allow the Left to pretend they have a monopoly on compassion. This is the good a Conservative Government can do – and we should never let anyone forget it.

The way to demonstrate that the Left does not have a monopoly on compassion is not to start stealing their policies. If anything, this only accentuates the link between leftism and compassion.

Soon it begins to veer toward the ridiculous:

Because at its core, it’s about sweeping away injustice – the barriers that mean for some the British Dream is increasingly out of reach. About saying what matters is not where you are from or who your parents are. The colour of your skin. Whether you’re a man or a woman, rich or poor. From the inner city or an affluent suburb. How far you go in life should depend on you and your hard work.

That is why I have always taken on vested interests when they are working against the interests of the people. Called out those who abuse their positions of power and given a voice to those who have been ignored or silenced for too long.     

And when people ask me why I put myself through it – the long hours, the pressure, the criticism and insults that inevitably go with the job – I tell them this: I do it to root out injustice and to give everyone in our country a voice. That’s why when I reflect on my time in politics, the things that make me proud are not the positions I have held, the world leaders I have met, the great global gatherings to which I have been, but knowing that I made a difference. That I helped those who couldn’t be heard.

Does this position come with tights and a cape? Rooting out injustice is all well and good (though again, this is one of those areas where Theresa May talks a big talk but walks a very small walk in terms of policy, which only invites more criticism from the Left) but a Conservative prime minister should be talking about aspiration and opportunity for all, not flirting with identity politics.

Then there were the downright statist aspirations, as we saw when Theresa May’s disjointed speech veered into a section about organ donation:

But our ability to help people who need transplants is limited by the number of organ donors that come forward. That is why last year 500 people died because a suitable organ was not available. And there are 6,500 on the transplant list today. So to address this challenge that affects all communities in our country, we will change that system. Shifting the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation. Working on behalf of the most vulnerable.

I desperately want to see more people join the organ donor register, and would be in favour of a significant and costly campaign to raise awareness and make taking action as easy as humanly possible. But switching from opt-in to opt-out is a dangerous symbolic concession to leftist statism, effectively declaring (as it does) that our bodies are ultimately the property of the state, to be disposed of following our deaths as it sees fit. Being able to “opt out” of this is not a safeguard – by even acknowledging the legitimacy of such a scheme we concede the state’s power over us, a huge concession which no Conservative prime minister should be making.

Then there were those sections which totally missed the point, as when Theresa May spoke about Grenfell Tower:

It’s why after seeing the unimaginable tragedy unfold at Grenfell Tower, I was determined that we should get to the truth. Because Grenfell should never have happened – and should never be allowed to happen again. So we must learn the lessons: understanding not just what went wrong but why the voice of the people of Grenfell had been ignored over so many years. That’s what the public inquiry will do. And where any individual or organisation is found to have acted negligently, justice must be done. That’s what I’m in this for.

And because in this – as in other disasters before it – bereaved and grieving families do not get the support they need, we will introduce an independent public advocate for major disasters. An advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families to support them at public inquests and inquiries. The strong independent voice that victims need. That’s what I’m in this for.

A public advocate to aid with emotional catharsis is all well and good, but the real failures exposed by Grenfell were those of building safety and particularly those of disaster response, where a medium-sized disaster in Britain’s capital city saw chaos for several days as central government, local government, emergency services, charities and volunteers struggled to work together under any kind of unified command.

The disaster response to Grenfell Tower should worry anybody with responsibility for civil contingencies, particularly knowing the kind of attacks which Islamist extremists would love to inflict upon us given half an opportunity. This is what the prime minister should have focused on, and how she should have demonstrated strong leadership.

Then there was the contradictory. A long-overdue defence of free markets which nobody believed given Theresa May’s past pronouncements and actions:

That idea of free and open markets, operating under the right rules and regulations, is precious to us. It’s the means by which we generate our prosperity as a nation, and improve the living standards of all our people. It has helped to cement Britain’s influence as a force for good in the world.

It has underpinned the rules-based international system that helped rebuild post-war Europe and the world beyond. It has ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of communism, and the dark days of the Iron Curtain; securing the advance of freedom across Europe and across the world. It has inspired 70 years of prosperity, raising living standards for hundreds of millions of people right across the globe.

So don’t try and tell me that free markets are no longer fit for purpose. That somehow they’re holding people back. Don’t try and tell me that the innovations they have encouraged – the advances they have brought – the mobile phone, the internet, pioneering medical treatments, the ability to travel freely across the world – are worth nothing.

The free market – and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law that lie at its heart – remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created. So let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might.  Because there has rarely been a time when the choice of futures for Britain is so stark. The difference between the parties so clear.

And indeed, a few paragraphs later Theresa May could be found eagerly plotting her next intervention in the energy market:

We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back. And one of the greatest examples in Britain today is the broken energy market.

Because the energy market punishes loyalty with higher prices. And the most loyal customers are often those with lower incomes: the elderly, people with lower qualifications and people who rent their homes. Those who for whatever reason, are unable to find the time to shop around. That’s why next week, this Government will publish a Draft Bill to put a price cap on energy bills. Meeting our manifesto promise.  And bringing an end to rip-off energy prices once and for all. 

The irony was not lost on everyone:

Fixing broken markets is absolutely the responsibility of a conservative government. For people to have faith in free markets they must operate fairly and transparently. But implementing Ed Miliband’s energy bill price cap is not fixing the market or coming up with an inventive solution to issues around monopolies and cartels, it is merely applying a leftist sticking plaster to a festering problem.

But what of education? A shallow and doomed attempt to pander to young voters by halting a planned rise in university tuition fees, and some vague waffle about vocational skills. After a bold declaration about re-tooling the British workforce for a more globalised, automated economy there were precisely two short, throwaway references to education in the entire speech (free schools and vocational training), neither of which deserve to be called policy ideas and neither of which were equal to the challenges we face. This is like promising to end world hunger and then failing to mention agriculture.

But the biggest letdown was on housing. Tory cowardice and lack of ambition on housing is killing conservatives with young voters who increasingly see little merit in capitalism when a deliberate policy of housing scarcity denies them the opportunity to build a stake in the system through the accumulation of their own capital.

If ever there was an area crying out for a bold new policy idea, it was housing. And as always, Theresa May did a fantastic job of describing the problem only to completely bottle it when it came to proposing a solution:

We’ve listened and we’ve learned. So this week, the Chancellor announced that we will help over 130,000 more families with the deposit they need to buy their own home by investing a further £10 billion in Help to Buy.

Oh goody, increasing demand even more while doing nothing concrete about supply. What could possibly go wrong?

More:

And today, I can announce that we will invest an additional £2 billion in affordable housing – taking the Government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9 billion.

 We will encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money and provide certainty over future rent levels. And in those parts of the country where the need is greatest, allow homes to be built for social rent, well below market level. Getting government back into the business of building houses. A new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market. So whether you’re trying to buy your own home, renting privately and looking for more security, or have been waiting for years on a council list, help is on the way.

So Theresa May wants to build thousands, millions more council houses. But what about the squeezed middle who don’t want or qualify for the state to be their landlord? What the hell good are new council houses for young people in nominally good professional jobs who find themselves priced out by relentless price increases and unreasonable deposit sums?

What about private housebuilding? What about actually relaxing planning regulations rather than just talking about it, and demanding that developers build upward not outward in our cities? In other words, what about doing something to address the supply of private housing stock rather than tinkering around the edges to further boost demand?

Theresa May’s motivation is very transparent here. The Tories clearly think that by focusing on building council and housing association properties there will be less negative impact on the older, homeowning Tory core vote. They calculated that so long as the availability of cheap homes for ownership does not dramatically increase – and they will ensure that it does not – they could avoid angering their base. But unfortunately, the net effect is to signal that this government only really cares about you if you are young and poor or old and rich. If you have the temerity to fall down the gap in the middle, Theresa May is effectively telling you to take a hike.

And more young people in this position are doing exactly that. My own social circle of young professional Londoners on decent salaries are now almost exclusively left-wing – not necessarily Corbynite, but certainly no friend of conservatism. Older acquaintances too. And who can be surprised? If you consistently screw people over throughout their formative years and early adulthood, you can’t expect them to suddenly start voting Tory when they get their first grey hair. This is the single biggest electoral issue facing the Tories, and they went into conference without a policy to match the scale of the challenge.

When Theresa May said in last year’s dubious conference speech that she wants to “set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics” we should have taken her at her word. Because thanks to being the only major party leader with any discernible principles, Jeremy Corbyn has successfully dragged the centre ground of British politics significantly to the left, and May is now eager to go scampering after him.

But if one takes the view that little else matters right now besides Brexit (a quite persuasive argument) then Pete North sums it up best:

So, Maybot’s speech. Would love to dive in like all the other political geeks but, seriously, none of it matters. Not a syllable. The only thing that matters is not screwing Brexit up. If she can’t get that right then everything folds – and however hard she may have tried to move closer to the centre, so long as Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Baker, Fox and chums are steering Brexit then the Tory party is defined by them; ignorant, crass, arrogant, jingoistic morons without a clue to share between them.

Ultimately, the speech was not the problem. The real problem is the leadership vacuum at the heart of 10 Downing Street, and a prime minister who either sees no reason to stand up to the Brexit Ultras in her own cabinet or is simply too weak to do so.

Theresa May’s off-brand, Lidl version of New Labour’s philosophy – her lame Ed Miliband tribute act – is ultimately survivable, and remains politically preferable to a Jeremy Corbyn government. But mess up Brexit and it wouldn’t much matter if Theresa May was an Ayn Rand-toting libertarian for all the good it would do when half the country is stockpiling food as global supply chains break down.

First, the Tories need to start getting Brexit right. Then they can formulate the kind of unapologetic conservative governing agenda which might actually make people want to vote Tory without holding their noses or keeping it a secret. And if there is time left after this, maybe then they can work on the old communication and leadership skills which are so lacking in this administration.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The general election result. The haemorrhaging of the youth vote to Labour, with the middle-aged vote following close behind. The capture of the government by hard Brexit purists who would risk the entire endeavour in pursuit of their chimerical free trade fantasy. All of these things were preventable if only the Tories had shown some degree of backbone in government rather than apologising for their conservatism and making concession after concession to the Left.

In the words of Cicero, non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est – disgrace lies not in imperfect knowledge but in foolish and obstinate continuance in a state of imperfect knowledge.

Theresa May and the Tories had another brush with political death today. They have been shown repeatedly what happens when you stand before the electorate apologising for your principles, watering down your policies and letting the opposition dictate the political agenda. The Conservative peril has nothing to do with coughing fits or stage invaders, but rather with the rotten product they are trying to sell.

And if this latest calamity fails to shock the Tories out of their obstinate state of deliberately imperfect knowledge then I fear they will only learn their lesson via another long stint on the Opposition benches.

 

The wording on a slogan is changed after letters fell away from the backdrop immediately after Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May concluded her address to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester

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Carnage In Las Vegas, And Presidential Words Which Fail To Heal

Donald Trump delivered a poignant address to the nation following the Las Vegas shootings, diminished only by the knowledge that the words and sentiments spoken were so clearly not those of the president

Our thoughts and prayers must be most strongly this evening with the souls of the 59 people killed in cold blood by a gunman as they enjoyed a country music festival in Las Vegas, as well as the five hundred-plus who were injured and their relatives, the police officers who ran towards the gunfire and those medical staff now working hard to save lives still in peril. Even by American standards, the Mandalay Bay Casino shooting is an unspeakably shocking atrocity.

At times like these, we have often looked to elected officials, particularly the president, to explain the inexplicable, to make sense of that which has no reason, and to offer some words of consolation to a shocked nation. Towards the end of his presidency, after Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston and many more such senseless massacres, Barack Obama looked visibly jaded, attempting to come up with new words of comfort as each killer dispatched his quota of innocent men, women and children to the mortuary.

President Donald Trump’s initial response to the Las Vegas attack – on Twitter, naturally – was characteristically slightly off-tone, giving his “warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families” affected by the carnage:

“Warmest condolences” is an odd turn of phrase, the first word almost congratulatory before coming crashing back down to earth with the second. Fair or not, it adds to the sense of a man who knows the social conventions and behaviours expected of him but struggles to perform to specification because it doesn’t quite come naturally.

The televised presidential statement, on the other hand, was much better, almost poetic in places. Some of the words spoken were among the most humane that Trump has ever uttered in public:

Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one — a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain. We cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims: We are praying for you and we are here for you, and we ask God to help see you through this very dark period.

There was also an effort to seek consolation in scripture and through the faith and religiosity which rightly remains important to many Americans:

Scripture teaches us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve. To the wounded who are now recovering in hospitals, we are praying for your full and speedy recovery, and pledge to you our support from this day forward.

The conclusion was particularly moving in its simplicity:

Our unity cannot be shattered by evil. Our bonds cannot be broken by violence. And though we feel such great anger at the senseless murder of our fellow citizens, it is our love that defines us today — and always will, forever.

In times such as these, I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness. The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.

Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded, or lost the ones they love so dearly in this terrible, terrible attack. We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace. And we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.

May God bless the souls of the lives that are lost. May God give us the grace of healing. And may God provide the grieving families with strength to carry on.

I have no desire to be churlish about the presidential statement, which in many ways ranked among the best remarks that Donald Trump has delivered since taking office. The president certainly expressed all of the right sentiments.

Yet the gulf between Trump au naturel and Trump on teleprompter is so vast as to be disconcerting. To witness Donald Trump extemporise and then to watch him perform at an important set-piece event is like watching two completely different people inhabiting the same body.

I assume that Stephen Miller was responsible for writing Donald Trump’s effective words today. He did well. It was not on the level of presidential statements such as Ronald Reagan’s in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster but it was effective in its poignant brevity, though my perception may be slightly skewed given that so many of Trump’s previous public pronouncements have been so dire.

But while poignant and affecting, the words recited with all due solemnity into the television camera were clearly not the inner thoughts of the president who delivered them. Donald Trump’s mouth moved and said the right things, but never has it been more painfully apparent that when it matters most (whether it be setting out foreign policy or responding to a domestic crisis) he is the ventriloquist dummy president.

A good speechwriter can literally channel their boss, “talk” in their voice. My speechwriting hero Ted Sorensen (who worked closely with John F. Kennedy from his Senatorial career right through his presidency and is responsible for crafting some of Kennedy’s most famous speeches) is a prime example, as is former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. They can conjure magic, but their magic bears the unmistakable stamp of their principal’s own rhetorical style. They elevate the person for whom they write, they do not seek to recreate him or her from scratch or mould him in their own image.

As Ted Sorensen wrote in his book “Counsellor”, a memoir of his time serving in the Kennedy administration:

Whatever success I achieved as a speechwriter for Kennedy arose from knowing the man so well – from the years we spent working, traveling, and talking together, as close friends and collaborators who communicated constantly at a time when I regarded his election and stature as my principal professional goals. That success could not later be replicated with someone else with whom I did not have that same relationship.

It stretches credulity to imagine that Stephen Miller, for all his rhetorical talents, is best buddies with Donald J Trump or that they enjoy that closeness of working or social relationships to effectively be of one mind in the way that Kennedy and Sorensen worked so well.

A truly memorable speech captures something of the essence of the speaker, and therefore the speechwriter must know them well, at least in terms of their public and civic life. But this requires the speaker to have coherent values and policy aspirations which can serve as a lodestar to their thoughts for the speechwriter to follow, and Donald Trump has shown no signs of holding any such firm principles. He has no political Northern Star. This would suggest, as if we did not already know, that it was Miller talking, not Trump, when the president stood at the podium today.

The speechwriting ideal is that it should be impossible to tell where the politician’s own voice ends and where the speechwriter’s begins. Richard Nixon once said in an interview that a good speechwriter must be “an intellectual who can completely sublimate his style to another individual”. But we would have heard a very different speech today had Stephen Miller been rash enough to sublimate himself to Donald Trump.

“There’s a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Trump with the thoughts of the man himself” remarked a jaded but perceptive Australian journalist during the G20 meeting in July this year. The same point is equally applicable today, when there is such a painful disconnect between the words we hear and the face we see. It is painful because the poignant words of comfort are diminished, knowing as we do that the man who spoke them did not and could never have written them himself.

Perhaps we no longer value good speechwriting or want our leaders to have an aptitude for rhetoric. Maybe great oratory is passé. But I don’t think so. People still want inspiration and will grant a hearing to anybody who looks like they might provide it, whether it be Donald Trump’s shallow pledge to Make America Great Again or Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of a social democratic New Jerusalem in Britain.

People still want to tear down this wall. They want to be exhorted to fight evil on the beaches, in the fields and in the streets, and never surrender. They want to choose to go to the moon, and to touch the face of God. They want to believe that we shall overcome. We are human beings, and we want to be inspired.

Today, the West is led by people who preach fear and pessimism, largely because our leaders are fearful and pessimistic themselves. “Make America Great Again” sounds superficially positive, but is a cold and bleak credo at heart. The same goes for Theresa May’s ideologically lost Conservative government’s overworn pledge to deliver “a country that works for everyone” in Britain.

There is no real ambition any more because confidence in our values has not been nurtured, and slowly ebbed away. And this retrenchment, the fearful, introspective defensive crouch in which we find ourselves is echoed in our present political rhetoric. Kennedy’s exhortation has been reversed, and now we petulantly ask what the country will do for me rather than what we can do for the country (and our fellow citizens).

It will be tremendously hard to improve our politics without better political rhetoric to inspire people and call them to action, but better speechwriting and political rhetoric can only come about when there are policies and values which inspire and uplift. And on those increasingly rare occasions where we still encounter poetry in our civic life, it feels fake because it is so disconnected from the leaders delivering the speeches.

Donald Trump said all the right things today in his response to the heinous mass shooting in Las Vegas. Yet his address did not and could not achieve its full effect, because the words the president spoke and the mind which conjured them were so clearly someone else’s.

 

Microphones stand at the podium after U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta addressed supporters at the election night rally in New York

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