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Hubristic Overreach – what happens to dominant parties

July 3rd, 2018

From ex-LAB MP and longstanding PBer Nick Palmer

It’s pretty widely-believed that politicians are all in it for themselves – the fame, the money, the sense of power. On the whole, that’s not true in most democratic countries. Fame is a double-edged sword: the media will build you up and then tear you down. If you’re good enough to get a Cabinet salary, you’re good enough to earn more for less work outside. And few retired politicians report that their experience was one of untrammelled power – most report perpetual frustration alleviated by short periods of achievement.

No, initially most people take up politics because they want to make a difference, overused phrase though that may be. More freedom, more equality, more national independence, more prosperity – the objectives vary, of course, but the spirit is surprisingly similar. That’s why you get enduring cross-party friendships: at heart there are kindred souls on the other side. Later on, though, you may start to think that what it’s all about is really just winning, so you can do Good Stuff. And that’s where you sow the seeds not just of cynicism (“What do I need to pretend to believe so I can win?”) but of hubris.

Why? Because the eternal compromise and difference-splitting and settling for quarter-measures go against the grain. You feel you need to go along with them, because otherwise the other lot will get in, and that would be terrible. But democracy forces parties to compromise with the electorate, making just enough concessions to popular preference to get a majority. On the whole, that’s a good thing, even remembering the fickle nature of many not very interested voters. But if you went into politics to achieve great change, it’s tantalising.

What, though, if you think you’ll win anyway? You are X% ahead in the polls, your opponents are divided, your personal ratings are well ahead. Well, then, it’s the chance to do the job properly, implement all those things you fancied in your most ambitious days. Why not sort out retirement care with a new system of charges, Mrs May? Why not impose an escalating fuel duty to wean people off petrol, Mr Brown? Why not send the Armed Forces to help sort out the situation in Iraq, Mr Blair? Why not slash taxpayer spending on public services, Mrs Thatcher?

Now look across the Atlantic. The Republicans control all the major levers of power, and may well continue to do so after the November elections. Why not take the opportunity to reverse Roe vs Wade? Why not really do the job of getting rid of any kind of universal health care?

Because it’s Hubristic Overreach. You can get away with it for a while, if you start in a dominant position, because voters aren’t paying that much attention. But at some point they notice, and they think, “Hang on a moment, that’s not what I voted for.” They protest, but the momentum carries you on. It’s the Right Thing to Do. They’ll appreciate it in the end. And they’ll never vote for the other lot, the polls are clear, aren’t they?

But polls measure what voters think today, not tomorrow. And, sooner or later, people get fed up. They may not vote for the alternative, but they stop voting for you. Keeping you in power has gone to your head, and it’s time to stop supporting you, even if it means giving the other lot a chance.

Conservative Republicans hope they can maintain an absolute grip on Congress in November, so they can move decisively to roll back the vestiges of liberalism. Brexiteers hope for a clear, hard Brexit, to achieve the great triumphs of freedom from tiresome European entanglement.

They should be careful what they wish for. At some point, people will pay more attention, probably in the middle of an election campaign. They notice that you’re in the grip of Hubristic Overreach. And at that point, it’s too late to rediscover the reasons why you used to compromise.

Nick Palmer