Thursday, 2 October 2008

Myths, legends and why Churchill and Thatcher may be Nick Clegg's biggest challenge

What interesting times we live in! One thing that many voters say they don’t like about Gordon Brown is that he’s been in office too long. Now the PM says that “experience” is a good reason to trust him and many people seem to agree. David Cameron has spent nearly three years trying to be everyone’s little friend. But in yesterday’s conference speech, he presented himself as a Thatcher-style conviction politician, ready to take tough, unpopular decisions.

What’s really going on here is a lot of myth-making and story-telling. Well, it’s more than that. Both the Labour and Tory leaders are trying not to be “out-mythed”. And they are both trying very hard to change their narratives.

Check out this fascinating article by Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He writes about America’s “true” election campaign . . .

“. . . the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they represent -- what they

“The candidates become, in a sense, walking archetypes. To warm to a candidate is to align not just with a person but with a myth, an ideal.”

What makes the 2008 contest so intriguing, says Gitlin, is that it pitches against each other two archetypes: one familiar, one unfamiliar. John McCain is the rugged, plain-spoken, straight-shooting; a John Wayne, take-charge, warrior-in-command –type. Republican-leaning voters like that. Remember Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.

According to Gitlin, Barack Obama is the quintessential exotic outsider. He hails from exotic Hawaii, foreign Indonesia, “elegant Harvard” and “down-and-dirty Chicago”, all at the same time! He is also, in some respects, an intellectual and, yes, a celebrity. He scrambles the stereotypes, jumbles up the myths and symbols and represents the unfamiliar.

“So that’s the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God’s country against the stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant’s child, the recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated future that we haven’t yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure — the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America is still taking shape.

“The warrior turned lawman confronts the community organizer turned law professor. The sheriff (who married the heiress) wrestles with the outsider who rode into town and made a place for himself. No wonder this race is thrilling and tense. America is struggling to fasten a name on its soul.”

British politics may seem more sophisticated, the discourse more party- and policy-oriented and less personal. The voters are probably less credulous than their American cousins, their prevailing myths and legends more subtle and refined. Perhaps: the British sense of shared identity may be clearer, making the “culture wars” less important (amongst the dominant groups) than across the Atlantic.

We shouldn’t brush aside the power of archetypes too easily though. Previous prime ministers have evoked mythical symbols. Margaret Thatcher did Elizabeth I and Churchill at different times. John Major morphed from decent guy next door to hapless, almost comedic man-out-of-his-depth. Tony Blair was the charming, youthful, urban family man who would renew Britain; later, he was the doughty war leader, the Christian soldier who would boldly defend his island nation. And leaders are surely now more important than ever before in shaping voter perceptions of the UK parties.

If Gordon Brown has evoked any myth over the last year, it’s a dismal one: the stolid, over-serious, long-serving number two and pretender to the throne who finally becomes the king and fails utterly to rally the nation. You are more likely to find his archetype in Greek or Shakespearean tragedies – or perhaps, TV dramas and comedies -- than in the nobler pages of political history. People see it though: why else did Vince Cable’s “from Stalin to Mr Bean” gibe work so well?

David Cameron’s personal narrative has been remarkably similar to Blair’s. He has posed as the youthful agent of change who has made over his party and promises to do the same for the country. But many people still don’t see the plan, the end of the story. Nor is there a well-understood story of political struggle. Whereas Blair took on his party and won, with a symbolic triumph -- the end of Clause IV-- Cameron’s old Tory dragon has not been slain so much as chloroformed out of choice.

Since the nightmare on Wall Street, Gordon Brown has seized the opportunity to convert his existing narrative into a new archetype: the wise man; stead hand at the tiller, the calm and experienced manager of a crisis. The PM invited people to compare that with the “novice” David Cameron. (What a frame!) The ComRes poll in Tuesday’s Independent suggested that his new gambit could work, at least for a time.

Cameron tried to share some of the neo-Churchillian glow by looking stern and serious and publicly offering to help the government where he can. After all, Tony Blair’s original “have it all ways” brand of politics was born of good times and would be little use in a recession. But if all Cameron does is follow Brown, he risks becoming irrelevant and also closing off his political options for the future. His narrative could leave him behind meaning that a new one was needed. So, in his conference speech, Cameron evoked the myth of Margaret Thatcher, claiming that he has the judgment, character and leadership skills to rebuild Britain’s economy and society. The Tories loved it.

Whether that works for Cameron or not, Nick Clegg needs to gain a good part in this morality play. When it comes to archetypes and symbols, his options seem pretty limited. Past Liberal heroes? Even if they fitted, the likes of Asquith and Lloyd George wouldn’t be much help. A century on, most voters aren’t familiar with their myths or their rhetoric. Vince Cable, the party’s plain-speaking, well-respected authority on economic matters? Nick Clegg can’t plausibly claim to be someone else who is still very active in politics, though Vince is becoming part of the Lib Dem brand.

Nick Clegg’s best (and, I suspect, most likely) persona could be as a kind of outside, independent voice in the system, who looks out for “ordinary people” and demands financial policies that put them first. There is a parallel with Obama, in that’s not a familiar archetype. It could mean taking a few calculated political risks, but without stumbling down the path of cheap, anti-banker populism. What I am suggesting is that the Lib Dems should combine speaking up for ordinary people with sound thinking and straight talk on economic policy.

If you think that sounds too clever, remember that empathy with “ordinary people” is becoming central to the party’s brand once again. It also seems that Nick can embody such a narrative, with Vince Cable doing the same for the party’s economic credibility. And after all, something similar ending up working well for Charles Kennedy on Iraq (though Charles did not know that before he took the position he did). Maybe there’s a Liberal Democrat political myth, an archetype in the making. One vital, positive point is that we believe it.

1 comment:

Wit and wisdom said...

Interesting post. I'd say we are where you think we need to be so there's not much which needs to be changed or developed. We simply need to get more attention and we are uniquely blessed that we have Vince to do this for us in the curent circumstances.

Nickers also seems to be playing a very good, long game and he is reaping rewards for this.