“For myself, I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” – Sir Winston Churchill
Hope is an election winner. Politicians who promise a positive vision for the future are often election winners. Last week, Ruth Davidson led an extraordinary Tory revival in Scotland, and Jeremy Corbyn rallied an impressive youth vote. A couple of days ago, Emmanuel Macron won a stunning landslide in the first round of the French parliamentary election. Voters clearly do not just look to their leaders for competence. They look for optimism.
Conservatives sometimes fail to remember this lesson. Realism and pragmatism run deep in the party’s history, sometimes pessimism and fatalism have come through too often. The sober and grown-up approach taken by Theresa May failed to inspire and cost her majority as a result. In some ways, the Conservative campaign was downright off-putting. The constant negativity and sloganeering produced a dreary campaign by a party which did not offer hope.
This has not always been so. Sir Winston Churchill, the Conservative party’s greatest leader, was a bastion of hope during Britain’s darkest hour. Churchill’s memory does not just endure because of his achievements, but also because of his endless capacity to inspire. Margaret Thatcher also spoke to a country in crisis and promised to stop managed decline and restore national pride. The genius of Churchill and Thatcher can never be replicated, but that should not stop Conservatives from putting optimism at the heart of their party’s identity.
David Cameron tried to bring some optimism back to the Conservative party. In his 2006 party conference speech, Cameron famously said “Let optimism beat pessimism, let sunshine win the day.” It is easy for people to mock Cameron’s “hug a husky” and “hug a hoodie” moments during his efforts to make Conservatism more appealing. But what he was trying to do was important. Conservatism cannot endure if it cannot win hearts and minds, if people cannot be proud about the fact that they are Conservatives.
With morale in the Conservative party so low after hopes for a landslide victory were so dramatically dashed last week, the need for optimism cannot be overstated. The country stands at an historic turning point. Brexit promises tremendous opportunities for a more confident and independent Britain. The challenges presented by the party running a minority government remain real and serious, but they can be overcome.
Over the past year, the government established a plan for Brexit which would honour the Brexit result, namely to leave the single market and the customs union. But this plan needs to be sold not just to the British people, it also needs to be attractive to our European friends and allies. An excellent way to kick off Brexit negotiations on the right foot, and appeal to Remain voters, would be to unilaterally grant the right to stay for EU citizens in Britain. The government’s rhetoric should embrace Britain’s cultural links with European nations, and make it perfectly clear that to support Brexit is not to be anti-European.
Difficult times await Britain, but we need to keep believing in the best of our country and its people. It is time for the Conservatives to rediscover their optimism and push forward with a plan for Brexit which shows that our best days are still ahead of us.