The Tory leader copies the words of great American leaders - and captures so little of their spirit.
In trying to reinvent the Tories as a viable election force, party leader Michael Howard has become a walking exhibition of all the worst elements of Blairism. His two-page advert of personal beliefs, published in The Times on 2 January, was a prime example (1).
These 15 statements all began with the words ‘I believe’ or ‘I do not believe’, and were influenced by the adman Maurice Saatchi. Here Blair’s media-oriented displays of personal sincerity are taken to an extreme. Rather than politics being a contest of ideas about how best to organise things, we have Howard advertising his own personal convictions.
Most of Howard’s statements are anodyne vagaries. He claims to believe in ‘equality of opportunity’ and that ‘the British people are only happy when they are free’. The belief that there ‘is no freedom without responsibility’ steals a New Labour catchphrase. And many beliefs seem deliberately opaque. The statement ‘I do not believe that one person’s sickness is made worse by another’s health’ could possibly be a defence of private healthcare. The statement about Britain ‘[defending] her freedom’ could be about Europe.
Some have noted the American influences for Howard’s statement. It has been compared with Martin Luther King’s ‘I believe’ speech, John Rockefeller Jnr’s statement of his philosophy of life, and the American Constitution. In terms of the words, there are notable parallels. John Rockefeller said ‘I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’; Howard said ‘I believe it is natural for men and women to want health, wealth and happiness for their families and themselves’. Rockefeller’s plaque at the Rockefeller Centre in New York was set out in the same format (and a similar typeface) to Howard’s ad.
These parallels show that politics is about more than words. While King’s call for ‘equality’ inspired and horrified in equal measure, Howard’s inspires indifference. For King, ‘equality’ meant challenging entrenched segregation and putting black Americans on the same legal footing as whites; for Howard, it’s an abstract statement with no political content. Believing in equality becomes akin to liking roses or summer.
Much of the criticism of Howard, however, has been as ridiculous as the ad itself. There is an odd assumption that other people’s influence tarnishes a personal statement of belief. Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney said: ‘Michael Howard has been caught red-handed. It turns out that his make-believe personal credo is actually someone else’s.’ (2) According to this, a genuine ‘personal’ statement of beliefs would have to be something that nobody had ever said before. Freedom’s out then (it was done to death in 1789); equality and self-reliance are similarly passé. The danger here is that you would get so personal nobody else would understand you….
The problem is not that Howard copies the words of historic Americans. The pity is that he captures so little of their spirit. ‘I believe’ becomes a personal gesture rather than a political call.
Some of the attack on Howard seems to be driven by a cynicism about political belief in general, rather than of this particular paltry version. At a time when strong political views are out of fashion, statements of belief are routinely debunked and exposed. If King said ‘I believe’ today, he might well be greeted with ‘yeah, right’. Howard’s statements belong in the bin. Not because he believes too much, but because he believes too little.
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