The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein says there is no benefit to be had from being strident, tough and arrogant when communicating the harsh decisions that governments and firms are going to make over the next few years. He’s right. But is that all there is to this debate?
Finkelstein says innocent people are going to get hurt. The word “no” is going to get used a lot. There will be cutbacks and setbacks galore. As Finkelstein says, “it is hard to see what accompanying these tough calls with a harsh demeanour will achieve”. I would add that corporates and politicians have a responsibility to show humility and to care even when doing things that are in essence unpleasant.
That’s sound enough.
And yet, I am not sure that Finkelstein is entirely right. He criticises Matthew Parris for believing that Gordon Brown’s air of taciturn glumness was an asset. But wasn’t Parris merely suggesting the country might welcome a certain steady realism of demeanor and even of message from CEOs and politicians? In my view, Paris was spot on. Surely, he’s correct to say that audiences prefer authenticity, and that the public is less infantile than modern marketing strategies suppose.
It was interesting to see Steve Hilton – one of the great corporate CSR guys of our time – apply himself to rebranding the Tories. Certainly, as Finkelstein says, being labelled both nasty and inefficient was bit of a no-no. This was strikingly noted by Maurice Saatchi and Teresa May. But has it entirely helped the Tories that they are now open to the accusation of mushiness (whether behind huskies or not)?
The Tories believe in tough-love. That is their USP. They believe in it for the economy and for families and education and welfare systems. That doesn’t make them red in tooth and claw, but it really is not clear that the Tories can ever be nice. One cannot be all things to all men, not even in retail politics.
Labour’s pitch is that you can tax the economy (especially the rich, say the old-timers) and fix the problems poor people face. The Tory’s pitch is that tax-and-spend is certainly bloody awful for the better-off but not much better – and maybe worse – for the poor. That’s not a pretty message for about a third of the population, but it may be true for all that. It also appeals strongly to lots of people.
It is certainly true that a devil-take-the-hindmost Tory-ism would fail in Britain. But in the end, corporatist Toryism also failed Britain and that is why Margaret Thatcher was allowed to correct about 20 years of sloppy government. Tony Blair was an enormous success because he smilingly promised that he would be a realist – and tough.
The genius of David Cameron – if it turns out to be genius – is smilingly to say that to a large extent there is less pain all round if we don’t pretend we can fix a recession painlessly. The country half accepts that the job of Tories is to clear up Labour’s tax-and-spend messes. That requires toughness.
These unpalatable truths can only be sold to the electorate by people and parties capable of seeming to empathise with the pain involved. Firms face the same challenge. Tone counts. To that extent, Finkelstein is spot-on. If that’s what he’s saying, of course.