There is a hidden assumption or lazy mental habit in both politics and political commentary that is usually minor but always irritating and potentially quite damaging. It occurs on an epidemic scale. Usually it is implicit in what people say or write, or if it is expressed, it is expressed so subtly as to make criticism of it seem unreasonable. Once in a while, though, someone lays it out clearly and unmistakably. Peter Hoskin, the English conservative commentator from the website Conservative Home, does exactly that in his August 17 column in the Times of London, on David Cameron.
Hoskin quotes from himself in his regular ConHome slot, and I have taken the passage below from his August 17 post there. I should make clear that this is not a general attack on Hoskin; his article is an interesting one, as his articles usually are, and my point is a narrow response to a single idea in it that is representative of a much wider tendency. Here’s the nub:
A recent speech that Mr. Cameron delivered on benefits was tough, as speeches on benefits often are, but it also had a fresh sourness to it. The welfare state, he suggested, had eroded the assumption that “people would naturally do the right thing”. This may or may not be true, but it jars against his earlier freewheeling optimism.
My fogeyish response to this goes as follows: Well, isn’t the main issue whether Cameron is right or wrong about the welfare state? And if he is right, shouldn’t this jar against his earlier freewheeling optimism? Indeed, wouldn’t it show that his earlier freewheeling optimism had been facile and should be abandoned for a more realistic attitude that takes account of evidence? The main defect in Hoskin’s argument is that it elevates an attitude, stance, or disposition of a general kind (in this case, optimism) above such crucial questions as the rightness or wrongness of policy, and thus above the likely results of policy in the real world. Such a preference is irrational and very risky.
Not long ago Tim Montgomerie reported that Andrew Cooper, now a Downing Street adviser on strategy, had argued in the early “noughties” that the Tory party should support entering the euro on the grounds that it would show the party had “changed.” It had become more modern, progressive, etc. Mr. Cooper now disputes this claim (which Mr. Montgomerie’s source still confirms), but we can leave him out of it because at the time many euro backers did advance this and similar arguments. Suppose that we had accepted their advice. What would then have happened to the Tory image of modernity and progress when the euro developed its current collywobbles?
As a matter of fact, we know the answer to that question because exactly the same concerns motivated most of those who pressed for Britain’s entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in the late 1980s. John Major, who was himself strongly influenced by that argument, was chancellor when Britain entered the ERM and prime minister when it inflicted a long and serious deflation on the British economy. When Britain almost inevitably fell out of the ERM, it destroyed the Tory reputation for economic competence that had been its main ticket to office up to that point.
This was not a trivial defeat. The outcome damaged the Tory party almost fatally until Labour’s Gordon Brown heroically more than matched John Major’s achievement. The basis of this major policy change was a vague yearning that the Tory party should appear modern, progressive, and outward-looking rather than outdated, reactionary, and insular. It led to disaster. But before you could say “optimal currency area,” the same suspects were using the same kind of arguments for entering the euro.