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UK Election – “thus far and no further” for the right?

June 2, 2017

Hubris and Nemesis. Those words keep coming back to me every time an opinion poll suggests that the Conservatives will have a hard time holding on to their majority after June 8th.

It could be that we’re in the middle of a massive false alarm, and Theresa May’s worst nightmare won’t come true. Or it could be that The People, ever unpredictable, will speak again. And this time, they might say that they don’t like anyone enough to entrust them with a majority.

It could be that they judge Mrs May to be well-meaning but inconsequential. An empty vessel filled with the ideas of her advisers. A middle manager promoted beyond her competence.

They might also consider that Jeremy Corbyn is more than the IRA-loving, Hamas-cuddling class warrior that the right-wing media portrays. That he’s a compassionate, responsible leader who has pulled together a consensus from his fractious party at the cost of some of his long-held personal beliefs.

General elections are periodic opportunities for politicians of all stripes to indulge in one perennial and crucial piece of deceit: that they will be wholly or mainly instrumental in the fortunes of the country they propose to govern. And we, the electorate, set aside our critical faculties and believe them.

Beneath that grand piece of deceit lie many little ones. Numbers quoted out of context. Facts selected from a tapestry of information that, looked at from afar, shows a picture at variance from the detail presented. Rather like picking out a cherub from the Sistine Chapel ceiling and surmising from that the majesty of God.

We are seduced by deceit and by those peddle it. Never more so than in the TV events that provide a centrepiece for elections.

In Sunday’s TV set-piece – in which Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn faced questions from a selected audience and then subjected themselves to an inquisition from Jeremy Paxman – we were looking for truth among the thicket of deceit laid down by both leaders.

We didn’t find much. Instead we were treated to two politicians who had clearly been coached within an inch of their lives in the fine art of deflecting questions. And when Paxman did what Paxman does, each dealt with him as their media people advised. We paid more attention to Paxman’s attack-dog performance – and to the efforts of Corbyn and May to refrain from bludgeoning him with whatever furniture came to hand – than we did to the issues being “discussed”.

Corbyn did a better job than May in this respect. He came over as more relaxed, and more capable of rising above Paxman’s barbs. May was tense, and more reliant on the campaign soundbites that had been drilled into her.

The truth we were searching for was never going to be revealed. How would Corbyn perform as Prime Minister, with muck and bullets flying around, and chaos everywhere? What sort of a leader would he be? What does Theresa May really think about the policies she mouths? Is she working from a script or from conviction?

And for we electors who set so much store on the likeability of the candidates, what are they really like? Is this a contest between Dumbledore and Cruella de Vil?

Of course not, and we shouldn’t form judgements on the basis of a couple of TV events. Yet the candidates ask us to do so, and we do.

They ask us to set aside circumstantial evidence that might help us to predict their performance. The chaos of Corbyn’s first year of leadership, with a leadership challenge and shadow ministers coming and going with bewildering regularity; the perception that he’s the stooge of a cold-eyed fifth column intent on turning Labour into a party of the extreme left. May’s rapid changes in direction in the face of political pressure and public opinion orchestrated by the media. Her robotic repetition of campaign slogans and her reluctance to enter into debate with other party leaders.

If we buy into Paxman’s typical lines of questioning, we might think that that both party leaders are ambitious, unprincipled liars who will do anything to gain power, including trying to convince us that black is white.

Unless we have reason to be utterly cynical about our politicians, we know that the reality is more nuanced. Corbyn and May are not “bad people”. They may not be our favourite dinner guests or pub mates, but neither of them are narcissistic bullies like Donald Trump, or ruthless opportunists like Vladimir Putin.

Rather, you might think, they are the would-be one-eyed kings in the kingdom of the blind, groping their way to false certainties in an uncertain world. They endlessly repeat the mantra that “The People have Spoken”, and cling to Brexit as though it was an article of faith rather than a rational decision that may over the next couple of years be proven overwhelmingly to be misguided and therefore worthy of being reversed.

If anything symbolises this uncertain world, it would be the sight of Jeremy Corbyn – rather than Theresa May – greeting the man who is probably the antithesis of everything he stands for, as Donald Trump arrives in Britain for his state visit.

In the longer term, it might also be the consequences of no deal being better than a bad deal, as we slink out of a European Union newly fortified by the defeat of the extreme right in the Netherlands and France, leaving us only with the consolation of an unequal friendship with a psychotic who claims to put America first, yet is busy destroying his country’s international reputation on so many fronts – not least in his repudiation of the Paris climate change treaty.

In the most negative scenario imaginable, we will be alone, less able to influence events beyond our direct control, and last – or second last after Donald Trump – on the invitation lists of those we like to think of as friends.

I’m not so stupid as to believe that if we walk away with “no deal”, we would be prepared to ask our neighbours if we can rescind our decision to leave the EU and re-enter the fold. That’s a decision that could only be made by politicians who are untainted by the disastrous mistakes that led to the referendum. Corbyn might get away with it, but for May and any of her colleagues, it would be a career-ending humiliation.

So we have to accept, apparently, that this is the Brexit election. All we’re expected to argue about is whether Theresa May is the best person to negotiate the “Best Deal” with the EU. Everything else is a sideshow: austerity, immigration, the fate of the National Health Service, the funding of social care, the education of our kids and the defence of the realm.

Even further from the radar of the mainstream parties (Greens excepted) are the effects of climate change and the despoliation of the oceans.

And there has been little discussion of a huge question that is looming up on the horizon: how we propose to mitigate the economy-crippling job losses that are likely to be caused by robotics and artificial intelligence.

Across these issues over which we have minimal control, the question that we need to be asking is: what is Plan B? And if international cooperation is called for, how easy will it be for us to cooperate with others when we are walking away from so many of the structures that currently exist?

We should not be expecting ready answers to the last question, let alone any kind of consensus. But it would be good to know that our government, and those who would govern us, are at least thinking about it.

Undoubtedly they are, but those who are seeking election would prefer to maintain the grand deceit – that the future of our country lies in our hands.

I suspect that if the decision of the electorate stops Theresa May and her colleagues in their tracks, it will not be because of our judgement on her character or that of Jeremy Corbyn. It will be because our younger voters, galvanised by the consequences of their apathy in the referendum vote, and appalled at the politics of the right exemplified by Donald Trump, will damn the Conservatives by association, and by their votes will tell Mrs May “thus far – no further”.

And this teenager in his seventh decade will be with them all the way.

One Comment
  1. Ronnie Spraggs permalink

    Simply excellent. Please see from the BBC in 2013, and it’s only got much worse since, at a rate of knots: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22555659

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