The most depressing choice since I became eligible to vote
I feel a little bit sorry for the poor, eager young Conservative Party canvasser who buzzed our door just as we were sitting down to dinner on the eve of polling day for the snap general election of 2017.
Would I be voting for Theresa May and her team, he enquired after I scampered downstairs to speak with him.
Can I really?
Yes, I will be voting Conservative in my northwest London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, a tight two-way marginal. It will bring me absolutely zero pleasure to do so, and I expect nothing good whatsoever to come from my vote, or a Tory victory here. This is purely an exercise in damage limitation, and even then you could almost still flip a coin.
I told the canvasser as much, and sent him away with a flea in his ear about the fact that I will grudgingly, despairingly vote for
Ed Miliband in drag Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn given the lack of any better option, but that I will be gunning for May’s Coke Zero Conservative administration and watching our somewhat nondescript local candidate like a hawk (should she prevail) as soon as this wretched business is over with.
I analysed the dynamics of the local race in Hampstead & Kilburn soon after the snap general election was called, and I think that the analysis still holds up – though as with most pundits I am probably guilty of giving too much credence to signs of a LibDem revival. What should be an easy gain for the Conservatives with any national swing in their direction is complicated here by the Brexit factor, and the fact that Labour incumbent Tulip Siddiq was staunchly pro-Remain and has pitched herself as saviour of the many “citizens of the world” who live within the constituency. Hampstead & Kilburn voted 75% to 25% against Brexit, and unlike some areas of the country I sense no diminution of that zeal. EU flags still flutter from the windows of several flats along the high street.
The dynamics of the national race are much harder to discern, with polls all over the place and many pundits hedging their bets. We will know soon enough, so I see little point in exposing myself to ridicule by venturing a prediction of my own, but if I had to make one I would expect to see a solid but uninspiring Tory majority, well short of the fabled 100 seat level. Labour’s electoral floor was always higher than some of the more excitable commentators were willing to acknowledge, and after a terrible campaign the Tory majority will likely be dull, workmanlike, unimpressive and find its efficacy increasingly questionable, much like our prime minister.
I have already surveyed the utterly depressing vacuity of this general election campaign several times on the blog – most recently here and here – and have little to add to this gloomy assessment. Obviously the heinous terror attacks in Manchester and London finally succeeded in changing the tone of the race and pushing national security up the agenda. But as with every other subject, discussing which party was best placed to protect Britain from further Islamist terror attacks only served to highlight the ineptitude of both main parties – the Conservatives for having presided over a drop in armed police numbers at a time when events in mainland Europe cried out for large increases, and Labour for their leadership being utterly compromised when it comes to terror apologetics and support for odious, murderous foreign regimes.
Ultimately, we get the political leadership that we deserve, now as much as ever. If you watched any of the televised election debates, watched any of the party political broadcasts, read any of the party manifestos or read any of the campaign literature it cannot have escaped your notice that the vast majority of this campaign has been devoted – particularly among the Left – to bribing the people with the eternal promise of More Free Stuff, always paid for by someone else.
Until terrorism shook us out of our complacency, public services were king in this miserable election campaign. Who could be trusted to spend more on them. Who would better defend Our Blessed NHS. Which party leader would most debase themselves by promising not to be a world leader but a mere comptroller of public services, a glorified parish councillor whose job is to make our every petty complaint their overriding personal concern.
The closest that anybody has come to painting an optimistic vision of Britain’s future is Jeremy Corbyn, and his policies would take us careening straight back to the Winter of Discontent. Theresa May sounded like a malfunctioning android for much of the campaign (strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and…) which actually turned out to be better than what came next, because when the Manchester and London terror attacks finally jolted the prime minister’s operating system out of it’s infinite loop she started evoking a stark, dystopian portrait of a country where civil rights are burned in sacrifice for the chimerical illusion of perfect safety, while the state perches over the shoulder of every citizen as a perpetually watchful, auxiliary parent.
No party has properly got to grips with the challenge of Brexit, specifically the need to ensure that we do not crash out of the EEA with no deal and find ourselves paralysed by a million non tariff barriers that even now many ministers and journalists are cheerfully pretending do not exist.
No party has yet arrived at a sensible, proportional response to the attacks on our country by Islamist terrorists – Labour scored some opportunistic points at the expense of the Tories for presiding over a fall in total police numbers but cannot be taken seriously thanks to the views of their senior leadership, while the Tories under Theresa May have made a few encouraging sounds about finally confronting the Islamist ideology and its roots in Britain’s Muslim communities but then pivoted dramatically to draconian talk about squashing civil liberties in the name of safety.
But most importantly, not a single political party – not even the minor ones or the nationalists – have asked anything of us, the British people. Apparently our job as citizens is just to sit back and petulantly demand More Things while politicians scurry around making false promises to deliver them to us. Nobody has called us to anything resembling a higher purpose or a common endeavour – something which matters more than ever as we confront an Islamist terror threat which emanates from non-assimilated communities who presently feel little connection to the country which gives them life and liberty.
It has become fashionable among political commentators to drone on about how the new division in politics is not between left-wing and right-wing, small government or big government, but rather between globalist and nationalist, those who want to keep vesting power in the current international or supranational institutions and those who believe that the status quo is not working, either for them or for the country as a whole. And while I would quibble with the idea that the left/right dichotomy is no longer important or relevant, of course there is a superficial truth to the globalist/nationalist idea which makes it easy to analyse the likes of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.
(Perhaps one of the reasons I resist this new way of framing the debate is because it cuts people like me totally out of the picture – people who are open to the world, comfortable with globalisation and immigration but who recoil from the antidemocratic EU and efforts to foist supranational government on an ignorant or unwilling population by stealth. Voting for Brexit was perhaps the most profoundly liberal thing I have done in my life, and to see that most unexpected victory portrayed to the world by self-assured New York Times reporters as some kind of reactionary hankering for lost empire is immensely frustrating, as being slandered and misrepresented with little ability to correct the record nearly always is).
But British politics is currently so debased, so superficial, that we are not even really having this newfangled globalist/nationalist conversation in a serious way. Brexit, ostensibly the reason for having a snap general election in the first place, has been largely drowned out of the debate, first by the aforementioned tedious obsession with public services and what each one of us can get out of government, and then by the twin terror attacks and the pivot toward national security. And in place of this discussion we are wallowing almost exclusively in the politics of Me Me Me.
What will government do for me? What can this candidate offer me that the other candidate won’t? How will this manifesto affect my mortgage rate, my benefits, my private school fees, my inheritance, my commute, my GP waiting times, my ability to access WiFi on the slow train from Crewe to Stoke. It has all just been so desperately small and parochial.
Or as I put it the other day:
Vote for me, I’ll keep you safe from terror. Just gonna need your Facebook password, please. No, vote for me, I’ll keep the economy strong because we all know the only point of a strong economy is to raise more tax to spend on the NHS. Liar! You want to destroy Our Precious NHS! You want people to die in the streets when they get sick, just like they do in America. No, we are now the true party of the NHS! Anything for Our NHS, oh god, anything and everything, my very life for Our Blessed NHS.
Oi! Look over here, free university tuition! Yeah, it’s subsidised by the taxes of other people who never went to university and whose earning power has not been boosted through having a degree, but still. Fairness! Young people are the future! No, no, no, it’s all about the environment. That evil party wants to build an experimental nuclear fusion plant in your grandmother’s basement, and frack for oil in the middle of Lake Windermere. But we will bulldoze nasty, Brexit-supporting Stoke-on-Trent and replace it with a massive solar panel field. Much better.
No, look over here! We will bring back British Rail; remember how great British Rail was? Who needs Pret when you’ve got a trusty British Rail egg and cress sandwich? Nice and warm, of course, just like the good old days. Let’s have car-commuting taxpayers in Gainsborough subsidise the travel of London-based city commuters, because fairness. British Rail? Scoff. I’ll see your British Rail and raise you British Leyland! Woohoo – nationalisation, baby! For the Common Good.
All immigrants are a godsend, to the last man. If it weren’t for immigrants, your inflamed appendix would have been dug out by a native-born, chain-smoking school dropout with a can of special brew in his spare hand, and don’t you forget it. No, of course we should have a sensible, measured conversation about immigration. It’s just that I’ll stand here and shriek into the TV cameras that you’re an evil, divisive racist if you disagree with me. But please, go ahead. No no, we should listen patiently to people’s concerns and then carefully explain to them why they are wrong. People love that.
Oh, you? No dear, you don’t have to do anything. We, the politicians, are here to promise you stuff, to pander to your every passing whim. If I’m prime minister, I will make it my overriding personal concern to fix the broken chairs at your GP surgery waiting room – I’ll come round and do it myself, I’ve got some tools in the shed – and make sure that New British Rail adds free wifi to your single-carriage metro train between Stoke and Crewe. Seriously, no worries. I’ll call the boss at 6AM every day until it happens. NATO summit? Geopolitics? Statecraft? Boring! Why be a statesman when I can be a glorified town councillor for 65 million insatiable people? I’m on the case for you, and your every last petty concern. I’ll read foreign policy briefings when I’m on the can, that stuff doesn’t matter.
Heavens no, of course we don’t need to properly empower local politicians to make decisions in the local interest, raising and spending taxes independently of Westminster. For I am running to be Comptroller of British Public Services, and my sole job, my only care in the world is to make your passage through life as easy and painless as possible. You and 65 million of your fellow citizens. The buck stops with me, because public services are everything. After all, Britain didn’t do anything of value or renown on the world stage until we starting implementing the Beveridge Report. Not a damn thing. And now we’ve jacked up the size of the state so much and you have to deal with it so bloody frequently that we’d darn well better make sure you come skipping away happy from every last interaction – too many bad experiences for you are political suicide for us.
I just can’t get inspired by any of this transactional nonsense. Thanks partly to Brexit, but also to the general populist rejection of the former centrist status quo, we are living in momentous times. But our politics refuses to catch up with the moment, to acknowledge this break from the past and the need for bold new thinking, not tinkering around the edges and having the same tired old debate about Saving Our NHS.
I’m sometimes accused of being too down on politicians in general, of setting my bar of approval so high that everybody is doomed to disappoint. I think my critics are a little harsh. Who can seriously survey the British political scene and rejoice at the options before us as we go to the polls on June 8?
Who can take comfort from the fact that a Conservative leader facing a terminally dysfunctional opposition decided, inexplicably, to move panderingly to the Left rather than boldly to the transformative Right?
Who can take comfort from the fact that one of the few Labour politicians with anything approaching conviction is simultaneously rendered unelectable by those very same convictions and principles, disturbing as many of them are? Or the fact that the Labour Party has drifted so far away from its one-time roots that many activists now despise their patriotic, pro-Brexit former working class base?
Who can take comfort from the fact that the Liberal Democrats have decided to demonstrate their liberal credentials by standing in proud, unrepentant and implacable opposition to the greatest electoral mandate in British history?
Who can take comfort from the fact that Scottish Nationalists, despite having lost an independence referendum less than three years ago and pledged not to hold another in a generation, have decided to keep on trying ad infinitum to break up our United Kingdom, or that the people of Scotland look set to return a massive contingent of their dubious MPs to Westminster despite that party’s utterly appalling record in Holyrood government?
The only people who can possibly be mustering any enthusiasm for this election are the naive young lefties who truly believe that Theresa May is orchestrating a holocaust of the sick and disabled and that Saint Jeremy Corbyn is coming to cleanse us of our sins, or equally idealistic young Toryboys who hope that sharing enough “strong and stable” infographics on social media might one day lead to a job as an MP’s bag carrier.
I have nothing original to close with as I get ready to head to the polls, so I will recycle the conclusion of another piece I recently wrote:
Yes, I’ll vote Tory this time. But Lord knows I’ll feel unclean and deeply depressed while doing so, with zero expectation that it will result in anything positive for the country and with considerably more admiration for the man I hope to see defeated than the woman I barely want to win.
Britain, we can do better than this. Probably not much better realistically, at least right now – because as a society we have fallen and been infantilised to such a worrying degree – but still we can do better than these paltry political party leaders. They’re all just so very…small.
Somebody, anybody else, please step up soon. Deep down, as a nation we want more than is being offered to us by Jeremy Corbyn, his provincial Mini Me’s and a confused Tory leader who thinks the path to victory involves dismantling – rather than building upon – the legacy of our greatest post-war prime minister.
Step forward, find the spirit of public service and call us to action, too. Ask us to set our sights beyond our own narrow interests, beyond our bank balances, our bin collections, our next step on the property ladder, the feelings of our intersectional identity groups, the fate of our free mobile roaming calls in Tuscany. Help give us a new purpose, a common purpose, a higher purpose.
I will be live blogging the election results and aftermath here on Semi-Partisan Politics from Thursday evening through to the next day. It promises to be a very depressing and underwhelming event. Do please join me.
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