MICHAEL Howard seems to be on the verge of converting the Conservatives into a Happy-Clappy party. His political evangelism certainly points that way. In his two-page credo advertisement in yesterday's Times happiness was the prevailing theme. The opening statement was this: “I believe it is natural for men and women to want health, wealth and happiness for their families and themselves”. Then came: “I believe people are most likely to be happy when they are masters of their own lives. When they are not nannied or over-governed.” Next: “I believe red tape, bureaucracy, regulations, inspectorates, commissions, quangos, ‘czars', ‘units' and ‘targets' came to help and protect us, but now we need protection from them. Armies of interferers don't contribute to human happiness.” And: “I believe the British people are only happy when they are free.” Finally: “I believe that by good fortune, hard work, natural talent and rich diversity, these islands are home to a great people with a noble past and an exciting future. I am happy to be their servant.” The use of “happy” and “happiness” to describe so many different human conditions is either the result of sloppy writing or deliberate intent. Since the advertisement was devised by the Conservatives' new joint-chairman, Margaret Thatcher's advertising guru Maurice Saatchi, I think we can assume that it was deliberate. Mr Howard wants us to be happy and is happy that he can help us to achieve that condition.

THE newspaper space for this advertisement cost the Conservative Party 57'000 pounds. Was it value for money? That depends on whether its readers are impressed by what Mr Howard has to say. There are sixteen propositions put forward; some are painfully platitudinous and even vacuous, for example: “I believe that people must have every opportunity to fulfil their potential” and “I believe in equality of opportunity. Injustice makes us angry” (a non-sequitur, surely?). This is all firmly in the territory of mother love and apple pie.

It is only when Mr Howard moves on to what he does not believe that we get to the political guts of the advertisement: “I do not believe that one person's poverty is caused by another's wealth... I do not believe that one person's ignorance is caused by another's knowledge and education... I do not believe that one person's sickness is made worse by another's health.” In those three sentences we see the skilled advertising copywriter at work, dealing with the known weakness in the product by offering comforting generalities that cover over the issues - which are, of course, the redistribution of wealth through taxation, educational policy in general and the future of the National Health Service. Each of Mr Howard's propositions can be challenged, especially the last of the three. Surely it is self-evident that if the resources of the NHS are diminished by competition from the private sector, one person's sickness may well be made worse by another's health?

The rationale behind this advertisement is said to be that after three leaders in three years it is necessary to restate what the Conservative Party stands for. The problem, however, is that most of Mr Howard's beliefs are stated in such general terms that they could equally be held by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Does anyone in British politics today not believe that “every parent wants their child to have a better education than they had”? The question is: how can this be achieved for every child in the country, at what cost and with what resources? The advertisement gives no answer.

Until Mr Howard's policies are much more fully worked out and costed, advertising of this kind may only offer hostages to fortune.


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