When I started to write about the general election of 2015, I assumed that once the vote was over, I’d close the blog, and move back to writing about other things. But David Cameron won an unexpected outright victory, was committed to a referendum, and so I kept this occasional exercise in one voter’s observations from outside the bubble going. Barely four years later, and I’m looking at general election number three, Prime Minister number three, and a country that looks more fractured and unhappy than at any time in my life (and I lived in Yorkshire during the Miner’s Strike).
Today Boris Johnson stood outside No 10 and made an election campaign launch speech that was extraordinary. In expression, in content, in delivery, it was a speech that made no effort whatsoever to convey a sense of statesmanship, of leadership for the whole country, indeed, no sense that the country he was seeking a mandate to lead was in any way serious.
He began by saying, in a faux exasperated way, that he didn’t want an election. He was forced into it by MPs having the temerity to do their job of holding the executive to account. He reeled off, in a bored manner, a list of things the Tories were doing, naturally including building “40 new hospitals” (they’ve committed some cash to the refurbishment of six). He went into a riff, which he plainly enjoyed a bit more, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of plotting with the Kremlin to poison people in Salisbury. The only crime he forgot to mention was the killing of the Kulaks, but as he’d put that on the front page of the Telegraph, all bases were covered. It was a speech that insulted the intelligence of everyone who heard it, but what did that matter? He is World King.
What’s more, he’s a World King with “steel balls”, according to a hairdresser from Merthyr Tydfil interviewed by David Dimbleby for Panorama tonight (6th November 2019). For that’s the kind of country we are now. We’re hitting the point at which half of all young people will have degrees, but the media and political ‘elite’ thrust their microphones before, and take their political cue from, people who have been groomed to be coarse and emotional. A part of me wonders whether these ‘left behind’ people, those ‘citizens of somewhere’ about whom journalists and think tankers write books, have become so elevated in the ‘national conversation’ because if the media spoke to the pharmacists, the librarians, the teachers, the tech start-ups, the poets of small towns they might find that the public school/Oxbridge/London stranglehold on the published expression of ‘informed opinion’ was unearned?
Britain’s always been a country where posh dilettantes have been indulged, but it didn’t matter so much when behind the scenes there was a strong administrative infrastructure holding everything together, and not just Whitehall, but right across the country. If the PM was a lush, the secretary of state an indolent know-nothing, it didn’t matter when Sir Humphrey Appleby was there to keep things ticking over nicely. Ditto in the town and county halls of the nation. But decades of deliberate deskilling, of outsourcing, of just cutting, has hollowed things out so much that the clowns in charge are now exposed. It makes sense that to provide them with cover, the rest of us should also be ‘represented’ in public discourse by the loud, the shouty, the aggressive and the irrational.
So here we are. Day one of the election. The PM lies on live TV. The Brexit Election (2.0) is being fought by the Leader of the Opposition on a “Don’t mention the Brexit!” ticket. The third biggest party in parliament only contests seats in a place with just over 5 million of the UK population of 66 million. The fourth biggest is pitching a ‘moderate’ message of refusing to work with anyone else in any conceivable circumstances. Meanwhile the party that most scares the ruling Tories is the party with no members whose leader is too scared to contest a seat himself. I once did a training course in how to write for ‘continuing drama’ (soaps to everyone else). Our first piece of advice was to start at a pitch of unbearable intensity, and to ramp it up from there. That’s British politics right now – high emotion and a complete absence of credibility.
In my everyday life I meet, work with, intelligent, competent, highly skilled, pragmatic, forward thinking people of high seriousness. All over the country these people quietly get on with making most things work. They don’t derail rape trials, suppress inconvenient or embarrassing reports, pretend that the major issues facing them can be ignored, or pretend to be things which plainly they are not. Being caught out lying carries costs, failing to deliver a task has consequences. Real life is a bloody responsible business.
But British politics right now? I know it’s full of good people trying their best, and often succeeding. But they’re not the ones in charge. And until they are, I don’t see an easy way out of here. I just hope this election proves me wrong.