Curious George and the Guardian’s contrarian columnist

For once, Simon Jenkins is behind the curve as he expresses doubts about the coalition’s austerity m

As a columnist, Simon Jenkins likes to think of himself as something of a high-class contrarian: he invariably allows a consensus to form and then writes against it. There's something of the old-style Tory anarchist about his love of mischief and lofty provocation; his high, rhetorical Oxonian style, so redolent of the 1950s, has served him well through a long career of churning out 1,200 words three times a week to non-negotiable newspaper deadlines. One has to admire the old boy's stamina. And his Olympian range!

"I absolutely love writing columns; in fact, I live to write them," he once told me when I spent a weekend in his company at Casa Ecco, the philanthropist Drue Heinz's house on Lake Como, at a grandly titled conversazione dedicated to the form of the essay.

In the Guardian today Jenkins has belatedly written about George Osborne's austerity Budget and the coalition's hawkish deficit reduction programme. He has allowed a consensus to form -- nearly all the newspapers and columnists support doctrinaire cuts in public spending and are opposed to Keynesian hyperstimulus and deficit spending -- and has now decided to write against it.

Yet, for once, Jenkins is behind the curve as he expresses doubts about the austerity measures and warns of an impending double-dip recession.

Sound familiar? In truth, his column reads as little more than a hasty summary of the position of our own economics columnist, Professor David Blanchflower, who, since he joined us in September last year, has been absolutely consistent in his opposition to the foolishness of slashing spending during a downturn.

As I said recently on Any Questions -- when in response to my contribution Kenneth Clarke conceded, with characteristic candour, that withdrawing stimulus could lead us back into recession -- George Osborne is a conviction politician. He's been very impressive since becoming Chancellor; his performance in the House as he delivered his first Budget was outstanding. He is a low-tax, small-state, social and economic liberal. He believes that there is something morally reprehensible about running large Budget deficits. All of this is sincere.

However, I disagree with him profoundly, and fear that at a time of systemic crisis we are repeating the mistakes of the 1930s, when premature attempts to reduce spending and to balance the Budget plunged Britain and the United States back into severe recession.

At present, it's too early to say how the economy will respond to severe deficit reduction. But the government should have been more pragmatic and more flexible, and it should have learned from the mistakes of the past. It should have remained in wait-and-see mode. "O Lord," wrote Saint Augustine in his Confessions, "give me chastity and continence, but not yet."

Or, as the New York Times said in a recent leader about the coalition's needlessly draconian emergency Budget:

In the days since, the misguided nature of this budget has become clear. Some cutbacks were necessary, if only to reassure Europe's panicky bond markets. But the coalition's budget aims to cut too much too soon, in pursuit of a pointless structural budget surplus by 2015. Its real achievements are more likely to be drastically downsized public services and, if the fiscal austerity backfires, as it well might, a contribution to years of stagnation or worse in Britain and the rest of Europe.

There was more:

No reputable economic theory justifies this bleeding. In fact, most mainstream economists have argued for delaying the most severe cuts until a more robust economic recovery has begun. The coalition budget reflects Conservative Party ideology, which asserts that as the government withdraws money from the economy, private businesses and consumers will step in to replace it. That won't happen if Britons see only hard times ahead.

And already, as David Blanchflower writes in his weekly column tomorrow, all the available data indicates that consumer confidence is diminishing once more.

There may be trouble ahead.

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Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage