When François Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy to take the French presidency last May, different glosses were placed on his victory. There was the liability of incumbency in harsh economic times; a sense that the “Sarko show” had debased the office, and the bigger-picture view that Europe’s romance with the right was waning, as the whole industrialised world tacked to the left.
But there was another interpretation, too, not incompatible with these, which was perhaps neglected at the time. This was the idea that serious times demanded serious politics, and that a grey manner and argument-laden speeches appealed to voters in a way they had not done for many years. Was Hollande’s most persuasive selling point perhaps not that he was to the right or the left, but how he presented himself and his policies to the voters – as more policy-wonk than personality?
Fast forward to this autumn – the past three weeks of British party conferences and the first US presidential debates. For all the attention lavished on the “blond mop” Mayor of London in Birmingham this week, the pervasive mood at all three conferences was realistic, even sombre. And nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in the leaders’ speeches. When their hour came, all three put in competent performances. None indulged in verbal fireworks to entertain. They presented arguments, defended positions, engaged in debate.
The leader who surprised most was Ed Miliband, if only because expectations had been so low. But the surprise was not only that the Labour leader showed himself capable of commanding an audience, but that he made no apologies for taking a rather high-brow, even intellectual, approach. He offered a coherent world view, which his audience could like or not, but could not dismiss as insubstantial, and he took on his detractors directly. Criticism focused on his failure to set out specific policies. But, more than two years from an election, why should he set out a stall to be looted or smashed? His attempt to snatch the One Nation banner hit David Cameron where it hurt.
That the Conservative leader chose to engage with Miliband, even to the limited extent he did, suggested that a real political argument could be had, beyond the verbal cut and thrust of Prime Minister’s Questions – an argument in a different, more serious and longer-term register; an argument in which content would be as keenly judged as tone. “We don’t preach about One Nation but practise class war,” he said, in a direct riposte to Miliband. “We just get behind people who want to get on in life.... While the intellectuals of other parties sneer at people who want to get on in life, we here salute you.”
Cameron was drawing a contrast between Labour and Conservative approaches, and by “intellectuals”, he presumably meant Miliband, the professor’s son. But the intended taunt could rebound if voters are looking to politicians who present arguments, level with them about difficulties, and do not shy away from ideas. In fact, a similar criticism could have been turned against Cameron, who defended his policies, point by point, in a way that he has rarely seemed inclined to do.
Something similar can be observed across the Atlantic. When Barack Obama swept to the White House four years ago, his so-called professorial manner was thought a drawback. He was fortunate that he could also switch on the campaign oratory and look the part of America’s first black President. Once he was in the Oval Office, though, his intellectual manner was seized upon by critics who accused him of dithering and asked whether he was not too “cerebral” for the job. They remained unconvinced, even after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Those same critics had a field day after the first presidential debate last week, when Obama was – by common acknowledgement – trounced by the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Most notable about this televised duel, however, was not that Obama came across as disengaged, or that Romney looked human for once, but the exceptional quality of the actual debate.
Over 90 minutes, both candidates displayed a truly impressive mastery of argument and detail, sustaining a pace that never let up. In so doing, they presented American voters with a real choice. Whether the next debates live up to this standard remains to be seen, but there was little crowd-pleasing; no condescension and a refreshing absence of dogma. This was how the world looked to them, they seemed to say; it was now for the voters to choose.
If what we are seeing is the rebirth of serious politics, why the shift? One reason may be the gloom that prevails across the Western world. Politicians inevitably match their manner to the mood. But the fickle showmanship, ideological flexibility and verbal dexterity (also known as “spin”) that have so blighted politics in recent years surely played their part, too.
In France, Sarkozy’s hobnobbing with the wealthy and stars was not unrelated to the whiff of corruption that swirled around his predecessor when mayor of Paris. In the US, that supreme non-intellectual George W. Bush was so detached from the detail of government that he linked the war on Iraq with 9/11, and thought it sufficient to survey inundated New Orleans from the air. Here we had the Blairs, Tony and Cherie, where “spin” increasingly met “bling”, and MPs maximised their expenses. Italy had three terms of Silvio Berlusconi; enough said. For voters almost everywhere except Greece, Germany’s stolid Chancellor became the ideal.
We will learn in a year’s time whether Germans feel the same and reward Angela Merkel with a third term. But recent evidence, not least here in Britain, suggests the tide of politics is turning. It is too soon to conclude that a new breed of politician is treating voters as rational beings capable of exercising a responsible choice, or that voters are ready to drop their cynicism and return the compliment. But Berlusconi announced yesterday that he would not be standing for prime minister in Italy’s next election, and could support the technocrat, Mario Monti. If that is not a sign of changed times, it is hard to know what is.