The Sunday Times

April 25th, 2010

Careful, Nick, change can be sharp and you’re just a boy

Change. That seems to be the holy grail of this election and of the television debates. David Cameron has been confidently promising it for some time, but suddenly Nick Clegg is trying to grab it from his hands and offer it to us himself. A nasty shock for Cameron, this is even more depressing for Gordon Brown, who cannot after 13 years pretend to offer change at all and has been forced to glower at the two younger, prettier men squabbling on air over who can, while sipping his own poisoned chalice.

Change is indeed in the air: the sudden rise without trace of Clegg, the emergence of a viable third party and the prospect of a hung parliament are all important. But the truth is that politicians are deluding themselves when they try to peddle this or that change and we are deluding ourselves if we believe them. Change will certainly come, both fast and hard, but it won’t necessarily have anything to do with the promises politicians make.

Tony Blair and Brown have discovered this the hard way (and at our expense). They promised enormous change in education, the National Health Service, employment and social equality. And they failed to deliver, despite 13 years of massive expenditure. Unemployment is up, social inequality hasn’t narrowed, education is worse and one hospital even turned away a woman in labour.

More important, the supposedly brilliant Brown failed in his unsophisticated promise to put an end to boom and bust: instead we have truly frightening debt, thanks to his splurge. He, of course, would blame every economic ill on a “global” crisis. But in so doing he only supports my point. Politicians may propose, but something entirely different usually disposes.

One of the biggest changes that has taken place is a sudden realisation of how little anyone knows about most things. The plume of volcanic ash that wafted above us was a perfect metaphor for our cloud of unknowing. We couldn’t predict it, we don’t understand the risks and we don’t know whether it will return. No one predicted the eruption of Clegg or knows whether he’ll just blow over like a puff of hot air. Few people saw the banking crisis coming. Now we are beginning to realise how difficult it is to understand complex economies and societies or to foresee the consequences of political intervention.

Many of Labour’s new social policies turned out to be just experimentation. Sure Start, for instance, was meant to offer directly to the poorest children some of what was lacking in their deprived backgrounds. Instead it developed into a system of pleasant nurseries for the better off, while independent academic research into its results showed that it was achieving almost nothing for the children it was designed for.

Other problems, such as the misery of children in care or the national illiteracy scandal, have defeated this government for reasons it cannot explain and despite all the early promises of change. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan also turned out to be an ill-considered mess, bedevilled by constant mission creep and doubt. What we’ve seen on every front is a mass failure of knowledge, understanding and anticipation and a disastrous, destructive lack of modesty in the face of life’s complexities and uncertainties.

What has been particularly shocking about the banking crisis is that most governments did not know about the risks the money men were taking; nor, apparently, did some of the money men themselves. Earlier this month it emerged that Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, a Goldman Sachs banker and collateralised debt obligation expert, did not understand the highly risky debt packages he himself was creating: he confessed as much in a terrifying email of 2007 to his girlfriend about the imminent collapse of the “system”, describing himself as the “only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab Tourre … standing in the middle of all those complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities (sic)!!!”.

In the painful aftermath, the most brilliant and respectable economists are genuinely divided about whether to deal with debt now or later, how best to regulate banking, or what is the least worst trade-off between tax and public spending cuts — and this, of course, without necessarily allowing for the brute force of vested interests, human error and plain incompetence. The only point on which well informed people seem to agree is that huge numbers of people will probably lose their jobs as neither state sector nor private sector can afford to employ them any longer. The only certainty in public affairs seems to be uncertainty.

In these particularly uncertain times, it is character that matters. It’s impossible to say what will be thrown at the next government, so manifestos hardly matter, except insofar as they show any caution about excessive promises and excessive government. The voter can only really choose the man who seems most likely to show judgment, restraint and courage. So political beauty parades, normally something I hate, do for once have a certain value in this election. Three sessions of 90 minutes’ staring at Clegg and Cameron strutting their stuff — I exclude Brown as someone whose character defects are already as well known as his disastrous debts — do at least give some impression of what they are made of.

Clegg is tall, handsome and agreeable. Standing beside Vince Cable, he has sometimes looked ineffectual and lost, but on his own he has displayed a confident, boyish candour, with a beguiling optimism, possibly due to inexperience. Instinctively I remain unconvinced. Cameron has easy charm too, but he has chosen not to show it in the TV debates: he stands and speaks like a sadder, steelier person, prepared for difficulties. All this is in effect show business, but there’s some truth to be discovered in it. To judge purely from their manner, Clegg is the more appealing. To judge from their attitudes, Cameron seems to understand far more clearly the limitations of what the state can or should do. And that really is the big change we need in politics.

Want to ask Minette Marrin a question? Email her at

For more details see page 2