Now, I don't want to pick on Martin too much, because I do enjoy reading his columns and basically think the guy is a top-notch political journalist. But looking backwards at the series of op-eds he wrote throughout the course of the campaign, I'm starting to see that his strident defense of Blairism from today's Guardian reveals a pattern I'll term "Martin Kettle syndrome." Martin Kettle syndrome is a bit like its American relative, Nicholas Kristof syndrome, although even stranger in origin. Like Kristof syndrome, Kettle syndrome derives from traumatic political defeats experienced during youth, in which the right is always supposed to win, has all the best ideas. Kettle (Kristof) syndrome also assumes that the vast majority of the public are right wing, and that any victories a non-right wing party or candidate has are bound to be temporary. What distinguishes Kettle syndrome from Kristof syndrome, however, is that Kristof syndrome still has a plausible base in reality.
For a classic example of what I'm talking about, check Martin Kettle's April 12 Guardian piece, "Howard Knows Voters Want a Leader to Share Their Values: The Right is Better Than the Left at Framing the Language of Politics." The following paragraphs are especially indicative:
Nevertheless, even making all the allowances that need to be made, it is clear from the Tory campaign that they understand how to frame the debate here. That is why British progressives err if they think that the main thing about Michael Howard's focus on immigration is that it is racist or that it is mischievous with the facts, even if it is both.
The main thing is that Howard is using the manifesto to frame a bigger argument about fear and failure. A modern manifesto is a frame not a programme. Howard has put his frame at the heart of this election. He is telling the voters that Labour government does not work. Unless Labour can reframe the election in terms of its own values, Howard will go on winning the argument.
From the vantage point of May 10, this all looks a bit silly. But Kettle is not phased. Hence today's hit job on Blair's critics.
But if the Conservative Party - according to Kettle - has so expertly won the political debate, it seems like many of their own members have failed to get the message. I quote again from Nick Gibb and Gary Streeter's Times piece
We have to see ourselves as others see us. There should be no more braying at our opponents in the House of Commons like pinstriped pubescents from a bygone age. We must eschew cynicism and when we agree with our opponents we should say so. We must not allow the thrill of joining Labour leftwingers in an attempt to defeat the Government to get in the way of what we believe. But it is not just our behaviour that must change. We must also address fundamental intellectual inconsistencies in our policymaking: for example, where catch-all theories on devolved decision-making or the internal market actually prevent us from taking a view as to how police are deployed or children taught to read.
To begin with, the party has to come to terms with, and be comfortable with, the fact that health and education, just like the police and the Army, are in the state sector to stay. This is a political fact. Since 1997, terrified of our opponents’ accusations that we would privatise everything, our approach has been to develop a few headline-grabbing polices — bringing back matron or giving head teachers the power to exclude disruptive pupils — in order to “neutralise ” health and education as issues so that we could talk about more “natural” Tory issues such as law and order and immigration.
Hmm. That doesn't sound like the same Conservative Party Martin Kettle's April 12 op-ed describes.
Really, I think Kettle's rather skewed perspective comes from two things: 1) as I noted above, the experience of coming of age in Labour Party circles during the 1970s and 1980s - when the left was> losing the debate in Britain; and 2) a tendency to assume that British politics and the British public are similar to their American counterparts. In particular, I think people in Britain need to get the second idea out of their head. From experience, I can tell you that America is considerably more right wing a country, for a number of reasons. (and I've got the polling data to back it up, but thats for another post) Still, I think this is a major problem with Blair and his strongest backers: an assumption that right wing assumptions govern the British political debate and that the British public is naturall right wing. Strangely, I also think it is this assumption that is (or has) prevented the Conservatives from taking a realistic look at their own situation. Hence, their immediate willingess to interpret the election results as representing danger from the right when if anything, just the opposite was true.