Lessons from America

Amid the acres of copy that is being written on what President-Elect Obama’s administration will mean for the world, and what it will mean for Britain, it is worth dwelling on one remarkable dynamic here since the Obama victory. Namely, that that an opposition party facing a government that has held office for more than ten years, with a leader who was himself elected on a mantra of change, has found itself so completely out of step with the prevailing mood of change that is gripping the world.

It is not for want of trying on David Cameron’s part. By all accounts he got up at 5am to record his video message of support on the morning of Obama’s win. He should have stayed in bed.

The American people did of course demand change in electing Barack Obama – and the British people too are demanding the government embraces a new approach to meet the extraordinary new challenges we face. But what I think what Cameron misunderstands is that oppositions cannot set themselves up as champions of change if they embody the very values that people are turning their back on.

The financial crisis of October last year marked a decisive break with the past. On the day Lehman’s collapsed, so did the failed ideology that government’s overriding responsibility was to get out of the way of markets, come what may.

And yet Cameron has been almost alone in clinging to a dogmatic, fundamentalist approach to free markets ( even President Bush freely admitted last week that he had to throw his free market principles out of the window to try and shore up the US economy). Hence the Tory leader’s complete inability to make capital from Obama’s victory.

Because in the face of this global crisis, the American people demanded an active leader that was prepared to step in to help people amidst collapsing markets and global financial turmoil. Who was prepared to reach out beyond national borders to tackle the big problems we face.

What Barack Obama has outlined since the onset of the financial crisis is that government needs to do more, not less. Look at this quote from his speech outlining his fiscal stimulus plan:

“I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible. If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years.”

This in marked contrast to David Cameron’s increasingly isolated opposition to any government action to stimulate the economy.

Another crucial element to President-Elect Obama’s message of change is his pragmatic emphasis on doing whatever it takes to rescue the economy – reminiscent of President Roosevelt’s action to pull America out of the great depression. Again, Cameron is out of step. He seeks to return to the failed economics of Hoover, not Roosevelt. – seeking to cap the level of debt in the economy at the expense of investment to get the economy moving again.

And so what exactly is David Cameron’s image of change? Apparently it is to bring back Ken Clarke and to promote William Hague. Faces from the past whose only sensible ideas to help tackle the downturn – such as Clarke’s support for a VAT cut – have already been dismissed out of hand by their leader.

All in all, it’s not change. And it’s not a way out of the troubles we face that anyone can believe in.

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