“Sometimes as Tories we just look a bit dour,” Ruth Davidson told the launch of Onward earlier this week. “We look a bit joyless – is that fair? A bit authoritarian sometimes.”
Hey, Ruth, just who were you thinking of?
“We don’t get to win if we start hectoring the people that we need to vote for us,” she went on. “We’ve got to learn to be a bit more joyful – and that’s something that I think we have tried to learn in Scotland. It’s not just what you say but it’s what you can show people. When you do it with a smile, they actually get behind you.”
The Scottish Conservative leader didn’t add that the Conservatives need “change, optimism and hope” – that trope from the early Cameron years – but it was pretty much the sum of her point. (It was one, by the way, that both suited and helped to set the flavour of the Onward event.)
Now “change, optimism and hope” make a much more attractive slogan than the alternative – “paralysis, pessimism and despair”? – but it may be worth mulling over about whether all the evidence backs Davidson up.
Let’s toy for a moment with the possibility that she might – just might – have had Theresa May in mind, recalling as we do so that it’s almost a year since Quentin Letts told the Prime Minister that she is “a bit of a glumbucket”.
Actually, glumbuckettery had done the Conservatives no harm at all in the previous month’s local elections. Modern life moves quickly, so it’s hard to remember now that the facets of May’s style that provoke universal scorn – her ploddingness, aversion to risk, introversion and pathological caution – were not antipathetic then to humongous opinion poll leads. For a brief moment, she was actually in fashion. Heroic dullness is a very English quality. Think Geoff Boycott, the Prime Minister’s cricketing hero. Think Charles Pooter, Sam Gamgee, Badger of Wind in the Willows, and a score of other characters from English literature. Think John Major – in his early incarnation, anyway: the Boy from Brixton who pulled off the 1992 Tory election win. It was May’s manifesto, not her manner, that lost Tory seats last year.
Then think about Britain’s big post-war election winners: Clem Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair. All of these somehow got themselves on the side of the future – a big point, and one right out of the Davidson playbook. But they didn’t necessarily radiate joy. Indeed, Attlee projected a kind of anti-joy. It didn’t do him any harm. “There were few who thought him a starter, /
There were many who thought themselves smarter, / But he ended PM, CH, and OM, / An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.”
In recent times, though, glossy optimism has tended to be more of a Labour thing – Wilson had his white hot heat of the technological revolution; Blair had New Labour. Both rose high and fell low – reputationally, in Blair’s case; quickly in Wilson’s, as the big Labour majority of 1966 gave way to a smallish Tory one in 1970. (Strangely but truely, it was the only post-war election in which a majority government of one party has given way to one from another.)
The voters have tended to return the Conservatives to office not when times are good, and people want uplift, but when they are bad, and the Tories must be sent for to sort out Labour’s mess. You may not love them – but you know you need them. Maybe politics just isn’t the stuff of which joy is made. The Joy of Sex was, at one time, a best seller. No-one would make money out a book called The Joy of Politics. America, that country of perennial uplift, is now led by a man who reportedly scowls and frowns deliberately. Donald Trump believes that it makes him looks like Winston Churchill.
The point is that politics isn’t a formula. Rather, it’s kind of art form, like so much of what human beings so. And humans being humans and art being art, it’s impossible to know in advance what sort of person will hit it off with the voters. Joy isn’t a quality that can politicians can rustle up on tap, and those who’ve tried are not politicians to follow. Kraft durch Freude, anyone?
None the less, Davidson put her finger on something important. Writing on this site about his book, Gimson’s Prime Ministers, our Associate Editor listed twelve qualities that a Prime Minister must have to do well – courage, luck, hunger for power, and so on. Then he added –
A few weeks ago, I tried this list on a sympathetic audience at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, and Xan Smiley of The Economist afterwards pointed out that successful Prime Ministers, and American Presidents, enjoy, and are seen to enjoy, the role. He remarked that John Major, and Jimmy Carter, both of whom he wrote about, looked miserable.”
So did Gordon Brown. So does someone else. Hey, Paul, just who are you thinking of?