Dear young Fianna Fáiler,
Right now, the whole world must be a painful place. You’re confused about everything you know. You’re convinced that people on the bus, in the corridor and next door are laughing at you and feeling sorry for your very existence.
Don’t worry. It happens to all true believers at some point. We commit our whole reputations and sense of self to the fortunes of politicians, and when they fail to win, we feel embarrassed, let down and stranded. As a Conservative, I felt this in 1997, 2001, 2005 and a little bit in 2010. It feels crappy, it feels undermining and it threatens to cloud the way you see the world around you.
You think ‘if they didn’t realise we were right, they must be stupid’. And maybe, sometimes that’s right, sometimes the electorate is incredibly stupid. But sometimes, they’re spot on, and our status as true believers blinds us to the conclusion everyone else came to months ago.
Politics in a free nation is about failure. Political ideas fail to be accepted by the people, so we come up with better ideas. Without basically stupid ideas to start a political debate, progress is rarely made. We hone our understanding of the world in a series of mistakes and misadventures. The problem you guys had in Fianna Fáil was a failure to quickly enough recognise the collapse of the economic system for what it was – you were sluggish to understand the crisis, and instead of bringing confident, rational, rapid change to bear, you dithered on.
Political machines in power over a period of growth are incapable of responding to economic collapse; their jargon, language and demeanour, built on years of growth and swagger, take a long time to stop. Like a supertanker, no political operation like yours could possibly stop in time to maneuver itself out of a fast approaching danger.
It’s not your fault that Fine Gael was able to out-think and use the comparative advantage of airtime without responsibility to react to events and capture the popular imagination. It’s not your fault, but it was the fate of your party from the moment it won the last election with Bertie Ahern.
When my beloved Conservative Party was defeated in 1997, the day after was the first day in my life I had lived without a Tory Prime Minister. It was also the day the director of my school’s sixth form centre decided to present me with a photo of Tony Blair and to laugh at me in front of the assembled boys. I was powerless to defend myself and it was hopeless to try to deal with the complex and amplified emotions I felt.
One of my then political heroes, Kenneth Clarke, said something on the TV that I remembered today: he reminded us of the reasons we were involved in public life, he explained that the country needed us to get thinking of ways to make things better, and he asked us to help rebuild our party.
You in Fianna Fáil have never really had to do that, but it’s about time you picked yourself up, dusted yourself down and prepared to rise, Phoenix like, from the ashes of your old party.