It’s tempting to side with conservative Eeyores. But from peace in Ulster to US healthcare, the progressive case is clear
Have you broken your new year’s resolutions yet? If not, then now’s definitely the moment to do it: apparently more noble promises are reneged on in the first week of January than at any other time of the year.
One up for the cynics who refused to waste their money on a gym membership, perhaps. And yet there’s something rather endearing about the way human hope springs eternal, something faintly heroic about our refusal to accept that yet again we are doomed to fall off the wagon. We want to be good, really we do: we’re still convinced we can be, in the teeth of all the evidence. So perhaps David Cameron is right, for all the wrong reasons, to suggest the time is now ripe for optimism.
It feels faintly weird having to argue the political case for hope, as if there were something actively wrong with being cheerful. What’s not to like about reaching for the stars, believing in the basic goodness of one’s fellow man, trusting that the universe is mostly unfolding as it should? And yet we’re sitting ducks, us little orphan Annies, with our schmaltzy belief that the sun really will come out tomorrow. How much smarter it sounds to be a prophet of doom, even if – as in the case of America’s much-vaunted fall from the fiscal cliff – it doesn’t actually come to pass. How naive to assume that at the last minute someone will pull something out of the bag, even if in politics that’s often exactly what happens. At least constantly assuming the worst means you’re never disappointed, rarely embarrassed, unlikely to fall for anyone’s hype.
And it’s true that plenty of people have little reason to be cheerful. For anyone reliant on benefits, the anxiety is real and justified, given next week’s parliamentary vote on real-terms cuts in welfare payments. It’s pretty understandable too for those going back to work this week in a struggling company, or a public service facing cutbacks, to feel a sense of foreboding. Optimism may be the lifeblood of capitalism – without faith in their future consumers don’t spend, and companies don’t hire – but there is an ineluctable logic to hunkering down and hoarding cash now, even if it risks bringing on precisely the economic stagnation we fear. Who wants to be lectured by the simpering Pollyannas who got us into this mess in the first place?
Yet what separates the optimist from the pessimist isn’t a blind conviction that everything’s dandy when it patently isn’t: it’s what you do next. Everyone sees the same water, in the same glass. It’s just that optimists immediately start dreaming of ways to make the glass even more full. Pessimists take one look, panic, and start wildly accusing everyone else of drinking too much. And that’s why the fundamental belief that we’re all going to hell in a handcart is the mortal enemy of progressive politics.
Rightwing politicians are not all miserable, carping Eeyores. Far from it. But there is a natural crossover between the conservative instinct to preserve what is good and the fear that change invariably spells loss, that someone must always be out to destroy what little you have. The rise of the United Kingdom Independence party – Ukip – is, as the former Conservative strategist Lord Ashcroft has pointed out, all about tapping into this reactionary mood; it’s the authentic voice of midlife crisis, of bitter disappointment with a world that older men in particular feel is slipping through their fingers.
For Ukip voters, the glass used to be full in the good old days but has been slowly drained by various ne’er-do-wells: immigrants, scroungers, uppity feminists, opponents of grammar schools, do-gooding social workers and imaginary councils hellbent on abolishing Christmas. Their desire to pull out of Europe is just the clearest expression of a wider pessimism – a gloomy conviction that there’s no earthly chance of persuading anyone else to see things your way, no point in fighting your corner, nothing left to do but shrug and walk away.
The trouble with pessimism is that it breeds a shrivelled, mean, defeatist little politics, one characterised by a tendency to see the worst in everyone and prone to a creeping paralysis. What’s the point of risking western lives in Libya, or Syria, or anywhere else where military success isn’t guaranteed? What’s the point of spending millions on aid for chaotic and corrupt developing countries if they never seem able to drag themselves out of the mire? What’s the point of trying to redeem and rehabilitate offenders, when you could lock them up and throw away the key? And what earthly reason is there not to cut benefits, once you convince yourself that anyone claiming them is a workshy fraudster on the make?
The politics of optimism, however, leads to the polar opposite. It means believing that most people still essentially want to do the right thing, and that the welfare state’s role is to enable and to encourage them, not to starve them into submission. It means believing that change doesn’t have to be for the worst, that human ingenuity is ultimately equal to whatever problems we face, that it’s always worth a shot. It may sometimes feel like the triumph of hope over grim experience, but surely that beats running scared of the past. Few political milestones – from the peace process in Northern Ireland to healthcare reform in the United States – are ever achieved without a willingness to try and fail, and then come back and try again.
But above all, optimism means believing not only that things can get better, but that politicians are still capable of making them so. And that’s why it’s really crucial not so much to Tory prospects in 2015, but Labour ones.
Pessimists, if they vote at all, are inclined to stick grudgingly with the devil they know – no matter what a hash they make of things – in the firm belief that the other lot would be equally useless. It requires a certain cheery confidence to take a punt on what Sarah Palin once called that hopey-changey thing (which, since she asked, seems to have worked out pretty well for Barack Obama). So yes, David Cameron is on to something. But he may rue the day he ever said it out loud.