A nice man, while there is still time

Observations on Michael Howard (1)

The English are so nice, D H Lawrence wrote, with his tongue firmly planted in his hairy cheek. What would he have made of contemporary politics, where niceness is all? George W Bush beat (or very nearly beat) Al Gore to the US presidency because, we are told, he seemed "a pretty regular kind of guy". Big, clever Al just wasn't as nice, as folksy, as George Dubbya.

Tony Blair plays better with southern voters than Gordon Brown, the gurus declare, because of his stronger "box office" appeal. Arnold Schwarzenegger can molest actresses and journalists - which doesn't, on the face of it, seem a terribly nice thing to do - and still get elected, because his opponent was both Gray (Davis) and grey, while he, The Terminator, was Nice (and also, just as importantly, in showbiz).

Now we face the apotheosis of the new niceness. Michael Howard has started to smile. At London's Saatchi Gallery, where you might expect to find thin veneers of synthetic charm covering up objects of dubious merit, Howard told a delighted crowd of onlookers that he had learnt from his experiences in government.

"I've learnt that if we want to persuade people, we need to preach a bit less and listen a bit more," Mr Nice declared. "I've learnt that just winning an argument doesn't on its own win hearts and minds. I've learnt that politicians won't be respected by the public unless they respect each other, and that people won't trust us unless we trust them." Meaningless, dishonest twaddle, you may think. But perhaps that's what "niceness" is all about: saying those things that, at first sight, cause the least offence.

Unfortunately for the Tories, this new niceness is barely even skin deep. It is an act that cannot be kept up. Does anyone still talk about Bush's "compassionate conservatism"? And note Howard's careful choice of words in recent days. He admits that he was unpopular, but he doesn't admit that he was ever wrong. He thinks he won all the arguments, but forgot to be nice; the voters were just too stupid to realise how right and admirable he was.

All the same, this new politics of niceness is troubling. We were already facing the end of ideology. Now we are into the inevitable consequence - saccharine demagoguery and deceitful charm.

For serious politicians such as Gordon Brown, this presents a dilemma. Does he carry on trying to sustain an intellectually respectable debate about modern social democracy (or "progressive universalism", as he likes to call it), or should he just let Hello! magazine into his beautiful home? We know which route Tony Blair followed, and where it took him.

Real niceness - kindness - matters. In a privatised, marketised world, niceness doesn't have a high asset value placed on it. In "The Mower", Philip Larkin wrote: "We should be careful/Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time." But Larkin was writing about authentic kindness and the genuinely nice, not the phoney niceness of politicians.

Unlike prison, niceness works. It is civilising. It has something of the light about it. But Howard is an unreconstructed right-wing Conservative. They're still nasty. When he has to confront yet another general election defeat - perhaps even in his own Folkestone constituency - maybe he will finally grasp that eternal truth: it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.