Optimism, Pessimism and Politics, By I-MAGAZINE Editorial Board Member, Baroness Perry of Southwark

It was a snowy day in Andover, Massachusetts, when as a young woman in my twenties who had never known anything but elderly men as the national leaders of the US or the UK, I watched on television as John F Kennedy made his inaugural address to the nation and the world.

He spoke to my generation with a message which he named ‘The peaceful revolution of hope’.

He called us to ‘explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease….rejoicing in hope’

That speech was mesmerising. It gave us optimism about our future. It promised hope. I, for one, will never forget it.

Hope captures hearts and minds, and the great politicians of history whom we most revere are those optimists who have given the people hope even in times of anxiety and despair.

One of the most remembered and revered speeches of history must be the speech of Winston Churchill during the darkest days of the second world war as Britain stood alone. As the shadow of fascism covered all of Europe, and Britain seemed destined to follow, he declared with force and certainty ‘We will never surrender!’ and promised ‘If we stand up to (Hitler) all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’ That brave promise of sunlit uplands if we summoned our courage and resolve was the optimistic message he offered. It played a crucial role in sustaining the morale of the people of Britain and enabling the promise ‘we will never surrender’ to be fulfilled.

President Obama had the magic of optimism too. In his speech to Congress in 2009 when recession had hit many families and businesses, he said he wanted every American to know ‘We will build, we will recover, the USA will emerge stronger than before’. That note of optimism was coupled with the inclusive words to the nation ‘We are not quitters!’.  There are inspiring overtones here of Churchill’s ‘we will never surrender’.

None of us who lived in the times of Martin Luther King will ever forget the extraordinary inspiration of his speech in which he declared, over and over ‘I have a dream!’  The fulfilment of his dream – the end of discrimination – took too long, but that speech was the force and energy behind the final achievement of equality under the law in the United States. As the commentator James Baldwin said of the speech ‘In that moment… we stood on a height….perhaps we could make the vision real.

We can go back further in history to another unforgettable speech of hope. Abraham Lincoln spoke on the battlefield of Gettysburg in the darkest days of the American Civil War. In that wonderful speech he declared the purpose of the war was to maintain ‘the proposition that all men are created equal’ and dedicated himself and his countrymen and women to the promise that ‘government by the people, of the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth’. In so promising he defined the precious gift of democracy and gave hope of a future in which freedom and dignity were offered to all. It was a vision of hope and brought courage in the face of tragedy and fear. The success of that message has been measured by history. Over the following decades – perhaps over too many – the recognition of equality for all has been achieved and the triumph of government by, for and of the people – even as now we watch the courage of the people of Ukraine in their determined battle for democracy – is demonstrated again and again.

So – hope has been the magic of great politicians throughout history and has assured their successful place in that history. The politician Michael Gove summed up the power of optimism in more blunt and political language when he said  ‘Hope…is an indispensable asset in politics’.

But not all politicians have grasped this lesson! In sad contrast, we have experienced the effect on the people of any country when our politicians and media offer nothing but pessimism.

With the backdrop of history to our present day politics, it is sad to realise how far from messages of hope is what too often we are experiencing today. Mainly from our media but also, sadly, from our current political class we get no message of hope, nothing to lift our spirits or turn our eyes from fear of the future. Indeed, fear of the future seems all too often the tool of their leadership.  

There are so many examples of pessimistic predictions, many of which were totally unfounded.

The unhappiest example came surely when Prime Minister Blair told us that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction which could reach Britain with only 40 minutes warning.  This was the stuff of nightmares. Friends with young children told me of nightmares and fears of going to sleep suffered by children even as young as six. Those weapons, as we know, were never found but the damage that was done by the threat was incalculable.  

If we look back at more recent experience of the Covid pandemic, the messages of pessimism in that period demonstrate the dangers all too clearly.  The people of the United Kingdom were treated to the politicians’ acceptance of Imperial College scientists infamous ‘Report 9’ in which they forecast that deaths from Covid ‘could reach half a million’. That simply didn’t happen of course, but it created massive fear and was the impetus for lockdown and for its unprecedented restriction on the basic rights of citizens to go about their business, leave their homes, be with their families or travel.

A little later, in October 2021 the government’s SAGE committee claimed that Covid deaths could reach 6,000 per day whereas in fact it was 300 per day. These unreal pessimistic predictions caused great fear and distress in the population at a time when perhaps never was there more need for optimism. We saw in our daily misery that pessimism – even when misplaced – leads to fear and fear leads to consequences beyond any rational intent.

But there was more to come. In 2022 when the economic consequences of the pandemic began to bite, we were told by the media that inflation ‘could reach 18%’ – until it became clear that only one economist had quoted that figure, and most had predicted something closer to 13-14%. That didn’t stop the media from endlessly interviewing people to say what horrible consequences 18% would bring for them and the misery it would cause. One felt there was almost a delight in pessimism about the future, with no thought as to what this relentless gloom would mean in terms of people’s anxiety and unhappiness.

Where were our politicians offering hope?

Hopes, and optimism, of course must also be based in reality. Promises of good times which then don’t arrive can be as bad as or worse than pessimistic predictions. Optimists may be looking to a future where their words alone might bring about change, or they may simply be looking at events through a more optimistic lens. What is important, though, is to recognise that optimism can itself bring about positive change, just as pessimism can too.

In one of his most memorable speeches of World War Two, Winstone Churchill quoted a poem of hope at a time when all of Western Europe had fallen under the Nazi advance, the American government was still reluctant to join a war far from their borders and Britain stood alone. Beginning ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth, the labour and the wounds are vain’ the poem offers some wise and important words to us all. It reminds us that ‘If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars’.  Perhaps that should be written into all our hearts. As the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci counselled, we should exercise ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. In more colloquial terms, we should accept the bad news and the (accurate!) poor forecasts, not putting our heads in the sand, but we should also believe in our ability to overcome – to find solutions and achieve victory over the dangers.

In the year when we said a sad farewell and thank you to our beloved Queen Elizabeth II, her words during the pandemic are a reminder to us all of what optimism and hope can achieve. When the nation was cowering behind closed doors in lockdown, the old were lonely and the young were frightened, her speech gave us a resounding message of hope, ending with the promise ’We will meet again’.

Politicians – please take note.

Pauline Perry

September 2022