October 24, 2007

Great Political Misjudgements

Paul Linford has put a list of great political misjudgements up here- they are all from British politics during the last thirty to forty years. Its a pretty good list and I'd reccomend having a look. His list reinforces to me though some of the conclusions of earlier posts on this blog- politics is ultimately about how you confront issues. Whether its Harold Wilson not devaluing the pound in 1964 or John Major forcing Thatcher into the ERM in 1990, the arguments mattered but it was the caution or inventiveness or decisiveness of politicians that really counted. Timing is crucial. For example bad timing cost the Tories in 1974 and Labour in 1979. Counter factual is always difficult to do in history- but it reinforces something that Matt Sinclair said recently about the way that causation in politics doesn't have a simple pattern, but relies upon the chaotic movement of individual choice and disposition. Its always worth remembering that- and the effect of political misjudgements- because it demonstrates to me that very few of the trends in human society are inevitable.

(The picture is for non-UK readers of Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, telling the Trade Union Congress that there wouldn't be an election in 1978- a year later Margerat Thatcher was Prime Minister and Callaghan's party preparing for 18 years of opposition- 18 years which changed the Labour party completely.)


Paul Linford said...

Thanks for the link.

Interestingly the TUC and the press didn't interpret Callaghan's speech as meaning there wasn't going to be an election - even though he ended it with a song which went "I can't marry you today - my wife won't let me!" In fact the speculation continued unabated, and Callaghan eventually had to go on national TV to announce he wasn't holding one.

Gracchi said...

Cheers Paul- born too late to remember Callaghan so I'd always assumed it was the speech! Thanks for the correction.

Paul Linford said...

No probs. The fact that he announced it on national TV in the end helped contribute to the sense of surprise at the outcome. As Margaret Thatcher drily told one aide: "He's hardly going to go on TV to announce we're not having an election, is he?" But that was precisely what he - and Gordon Brown this year - did do, an admission really that, then as now, the speculation had been allowed to get out of hand.

Anonymous said...

I've just worked my way through all of Paul's fascinating lists, and propose another: Top Ten Justifiable Political Misjudgements. Those political acts that prove disastrous for the career of the politician, but good for the country/etc.

Or, decisions where politicians knew that they could do something in their own interest but at the country's eventual expense. And stayed their hand. E.g. the Major administration's decision not to provoke a pre-election boom in 95-7.

Paul Linford said...

The Top 10 Acts of Political Altruism? I've a feeling that could turn out to be a fairly short list!

Seriously, I can think of plenty of examples of people who have sacrificed their career interests for the sake of their parties (David Davis when he stood aside for Howard, Charlie Kennedy when he quit even though he could have won a leadership election) but I am struggling to name a genuine example where someone has knowingly sacrificed their career for the good of the country.

Politaholic said...

I can think of one act of political altruism (or at any rate putting public interest ahead of party interest): John Hume's participation in the Hume-Adams talks. Bringing Sinn Fein into the political mainstream was something from which the SDLP could only lose. I don't this was a misjudgement: Hume knew what he was doing.