Thursday, 6 October 2011

Narrativewatch: David Cameron, Winston Churchill and the bulldog

David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference has had a mixed reception from political commentators.

I thought the most interesting bit came at the very end of the speech.

We can be a country where people look back on their life and say: I've worked hard, I've raised a family, I'm part of a community and all along it was worth my while. We're too far away from that today but we can get there. 

It's not complicated, but not easy either - because nothing worthwhile is easily won. But you know, we've been told we were finished before. 

They said when we lost an Empire that we couldn't find a role. But we found a role, took on communism and helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

They called our economy the sick man of Europe. But we came back and turned this country into a beacon of enterprise.

No, Britain never had the biggest population, the largest land mass, the richest resources, but we had the spirit. Remember: it's not the size of the dog in the fight - it's the size of the fight in the dog. Overcoming challenge, confounding the sceptics, reinventing ourselves, this is what we do. It's called leadership.

James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph quickly saw what kind of story the PM was pitching.

I don’t think you have to be a historian to get the impression that Mr Cameron would like you to think about British bulldogs, Sir Winston Churchill and the war.

. . . . Mr Cameron is pitching himself as the man to lead us into the battle to come.  Quietly, he’s recasting himself, changing his role from sunshine kid to economic war leader.

As James Kirkup suggests, that’s quite a hard transition to make.

What’s more, in starting to tell a Churchillian narrative, David Cameron has taken on a big challenge.

Let’s recall the basic elements of Churchill’s wartime narrative.  In his new book, All Hell Let Loose: the World at War (1939-45), Max Hastings says:

It is hard to imagine that Britain would have continued to defy Hitler after June 1940 in the absence of Winston Churchill, who constructed a brilliant and narrowly plausible narrative for the British people, first about what they might do, and later to persuade them of what they have done.

Harking back to the Spanish Armada and invoking the myth of the “strong island nation”, Churchill declared that “we shall never surrender . . . we will fight them on the beaches”.  The goal – “victory at all costs” - was never in doubt and nearly everyone had a part to play in the war effort.  By contrast, beyond getting rid of the public deficit, David Cameron’s strategy for winning the economic war and building a strong economy, is much harder to pin down

In 1940, Churchill could rally the British public and tell them “what they might do” because it always obvious who the enemy was – a real nation with a powerful military force and a demonic leader.  In 2011, it is not so clear who or what Mr Cameron wants to lead Britain and prevail against.

All through World War II, Winston Churchill told another, parallel story – that of the strong and purposeful community, fighting together, making equal sacrifices and winning together.  According to the latest data from Ipsos MORI, seven voters in ten perceive that the coalition government’s plans to reduce the national deficit will hit poor people hardest.  People don’t think that “we’re all in this together”.  The “strong community” archetype does not look like one that David Cameron can easily deploy.

None of this means that David Cameron should give up on trying to be an economic war leader.  He and his colleague may yet devise a strategy that the public can rally behind. In any case, fast-moving events could leave them with little choice.  For now, however, these words from the PM’s closing proration may be the most instructive:

Overcoming challenge, confounding the sceptics, reinventing ourselves, this is what we do. It's called leadership

David Cameron will find that he has more personal credibility on these counts than by trying to call Churchill, Henry V and the bulldog into action.  He could re-tell and apply the stories from his own political life to illustrate what his type of leadership is about.  In this respect, Cameron could take after Churchill who, lest we forget, embodied his own narrative by staying in London during the blitz, thereby exposing himself to the risk of physical danger. 


Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

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