During the June 1983 general election campaign, before he became leader of the British Labour party, Neil Kinnock was participating in a TV debate when the issue of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership during the Falklands war arose.
Kinnock was arguing that her arrogance should not be mistaken for strength, when a heckler from the studio audience interrupted him shouting: “At least she had shown guts.” To which Kinnock infamously replied: “It’s a pity others had to leave theirs on the ground at Goose Green to prove it.”
While his phrasing left many feeling uneasy, not least the families of deceased troops, his impromptu reply did have a core truth to it, and it is one that has occurred to me all week. Political leaders who confuse arrogance and stubbornness with strength are not equipped for real leadership.
This is at the heart of much of what we have seen from this Government for the past few weeks – not merely from one part of the Government, but from both.
In the run-up to the Budget, both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste repeated over and over again that the Budget would be firm but fair. It was part of every minister’s script. The mantra “firm but fair” reverberated everywhere.
But as we all discovered last week, the Budget was anything but fair. Just like last year, it was regressive, targeting the poorest and most vulnerable far more than those at the top of the scale. Independent analysts and observers have confirmed this. The fundamental unfairness of the Budget having been exposed, the Government is hellbent on proving their supposed firmness with a rigidity and stubbornness that defies all logic.
One of the ways in which the Taoiseach and Tanaiste chose to demonstrate their firmness was to ram the Social Welfare Bill through the Dail with virtually no debate. On Thursday, they proposed a guillotine motion that effectively allowed a paltry two hours to take the committee and remaining stages of the Social Welfare Bill.
This was all the time the Government with the biggest majority in Irish history was prepared to allow the people’s representatives to debate and scrutinise the cuts to the respite care grant, the cuts to child benefit, the removal of the PRSI exemption, the cuts to the jobseeker’s benefit, the changes to the lone parent allowance and to farm assist payments.
Such is the arrogance of both Labour and Fine Gael that neither wanted the Dail to have any meaningful discussion. They wanted to suppress dissent in their own ranks and ram the legislation through as quickly as they could without regard to the public, who would actually like to hear from deputies on the cuts.
Having allowed only two hours, we then had to endure the arrogance – sorry, the “firmness” – of the Social Protection Minister, who sought to talk out the debate with a one-woman filibuster lecturing us on how difficult all of this was for her.
Almost as difficult as it was for Minister Pat Rabbitte, who in his best impression yet of Pontius Pilate, sought to disown all his party’s pre-election promises, saying: “Isn’t this the kind of thing you tend to do during an election campaign?”
So now we see what the “Labour’s way” in Gilmore’s infamous “Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way” comment means. You say what you need to say to get elected and then dump it all after you get in.
An easy thing for superannuated figures like
Quinn, Rabbitte, Howlin and Gilmore to do, especially as they relish the prospect of never facing the electorate again. But an altogether different prospect for first-time Labour TDs and senators who naively thought their policy platform meant something.
But while most of the focus over the past week has been on the party rolled over by this Budget, let’s not forget those at the top of Fine Gael whose real arrogance and indifference to social cohesion has informed and underpinned the whole Budget approach.
Labour backbenchers, and a few Fine Gael TDs, who thought in the early months of this Government that the Labour tail would wag the dog, have learned how wrong they were. Last year’s regressive Budget was not an aberration, it was the trend for the future. Anyone who doubts that need only read Fine Gael’s Property Tax Bill.
In a space of a few weeks, Enda Kenny has demonstrated a level of conceit, aloofness and insensitivity that shows that he, just like Thatcher, cannot differentiate between strength and arrogance.
The pity is that the most vulnerable in society will have to pay for it.