The only national party leader with clear political convictions and the courage to publicly defend them is rendered unelectable on the basis of those convictions, while cowardly and triangulating politicians with more superficially palatable opinions are poised to do well in the general election. How depressing.
Here’s the thing: While Jeremy Corbyn may be wrong about economic policy, foreign policy, national defence, the size and role of the state and a million and one other things, he is also the only major party leader (with the very occasional exception of Tim Farron) who can be fairly described as a man of conviction, somebody with a coherent worldview and the political courage to stand up and unapologetically argue for it.
Covering this general election will be hard for me, not just because (as usual) there is no party which reasonably represents this blog’s conservatarian stance but because the only party leader potentially worth admiring from a political courage perspective is the man that nobody in their right mind can reasonably vote for. If some nervous voters believe Brexit Britain is bad, that’s nothing compared to the kind of sudden confiscatory wealth raids, punishing tax rates and ramping up of the state we would see under Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.
The most plausible prime minister on 9 June – incumbent Theresa May – has gravitas and the outward appearance of baseline competence, yes. But she is ideologically rootless, her only real defining trait being a consistent hard lean towards authoritarianism. Beyond that, what does she stand for? Helping the JAMs, people who are just about managing? Surely every politician in government should strive to do that anyway. Theresa May was against Brexit before she became its most ardent champion, unable to take a bold stand on the most pressing question to face Britain in the post-war era until her hand was forced by the referendum result.
Then look at the other party leaders. Nicola Sturgeon is an expert at spinning her grievance-soaked tale of Scottish persecution and the need for supposedly childlike, simple Scots to be protected from the Evil Tor-ees, but while she campaigns in poetry (or rather crude limericks) the SNP governs in single-minded, authoritarian prose and is busy constructing a one-party statelet north of the border. At one point the Scottish Parliament failed to pass any legislation for over a year, so consumed were the SNP with manoeuvring for a second independence referendum. And when they did pass laws, they were frighteningly authoritarian schemes like the “named person” scheme which makes Sturgeon’s government an unwanted auxiliary parent to every newborn Scottish baby.
Under Paul Nuttall, UKIP – when they are not infighting and twisting in the wind – continue their lurch to the left, abandoning their original voter base of libertarian types in ever more fevered pursuit of hardcore immigration opponents and the disaffected Northern Labour vote. UKIP (or rather, Conservative fear of UKIP) played a significant role in forcing the referendum and achieving the outcome, but now the party has nothing left to say beyond defending the Leave campaign’s most indefensible promises and pledging to fight for the hardest of hard Brexits with nary a thought for how uncontrolled exit from the EU would impact our economy and diplomatic standing.
The Green Party remain an irrelevance outside their stronghold of Brighton, not helped by their visceral antipathy toward material human progress. And besides, the Green Party are…well, the Green Party.
And to be clear, Labour are in a mess, too. Not everybody subscribes to the Jeremy Corbyn agenda. But at least Jeremy Corbyn has a coherent worldview, as risible or abhorrent as some people may find it. What is the Labour centrist worldview? What are their inviolable beliefs and convictions? What gets Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper or Dan Jarvis out of bed every morning? Being a bit more left-wing than the centrist Tories while prattling on about “fairness” a lot more? Pretending to be heroic tribunes of the working classes but then ignoring their opinions on key issues like the EU and immigration?
One might have more sympathy for the Labour centrists, if A) they hadn’t bottled their cowardly post-referendum coup against Jeremy Corbyn, with all of the shrunken people who now pass for “big beasts” within the party electing to save their political hides while sending out the risible Owen Smith as their stalking horse, and B) they had a solid, work-in-progress alternative to Corbynism in their back pockets. No such alternative is being proposed.
And so we are in a position where the one candidate with a coherent worldview and the glimmer of a sense that the British people should be called to overcome a challenge rather than being soothed, placated and made safe, cannot be elected because his political ideas are broadly wrong. Meanwhile, a bunch of politicians whose views are slightly less wrong than Jeremy Corbyn’s will benefit from the 2017 general election thanks to their ability to conceal what they really think and bend, flatter and shapeshift their way into the public’s good graces.
Just compare the opening campaign speeches made by Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May respectively.
Here’s Jeremy Corbyn, opening with a stridently anti-establishment message which could almost be described as Trump-like:
The dividing lines in this election could not be clearer from the outset. It is the Conservatives, the party of privilege and the richest, versus the Labour Party, the party that is standing up for working people to improve the lives of all.
It is the establishment versus the people and it is our historic duty to make sure that the people prevail. A duty for all of us here today, the duty of every Labour MP, a duty for our half a million members – including the 2,500 who have joined in the last 24 hours.
Much of the media and establishment are saying that this election is a foregone conclusion.
They think there are rules in politics, which if you don’t follow by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win.
But of course, they do not want us to win. Because when we win it is the people, not the powerful, who win.
The nurse, the teacher, the small trader, the carer, the builder, the office worker, the student, the carer win. We all win.
It is the establishment that complains I don’t play the rules: by which they mean their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game.
We don’t fit in their cosy club. We ‘re not obsessed with the tittle-tattle of Westminster or Brussels. We don’t accept that it is natural for Britain to be governed by a ruling elite, the City and the tax-dodgers, and we don’t accept that the British people just have to take what they’re given, that they don’t deserve better.
And in a sense, the establishment and their followers in the media are quite right. I don’t play by their rules. And if a Labour Government is elected on 8 June, then we won’t play by their rules either.
They are yesterday’s rules, set by failed political and corporate elites we should be consigning to the past.
This is good because it is not a message which resonates only with Labour’s traditional voter tribes.
Especially now, following an EU referendum which literally pitched the establishment of this country and their sycophantic allies against the ranks of the people, voters may be receptive to this message of fighting against a political, economic, media and cultural establishment which arrogantly seeks to rule in its own interest. Even as a conservative libertarian type, this passage resonates with me.
And here is Corbyn waxing lyrical about the benefits of wealth distribution:
Britain is the sixth richest economy in the world. The people of Britain must share in that wealth.
If I were Southern Rail or Philip Green, I’d be worried about a Labour Government.
If I were Mike Ashley or the CEO of a tax avoiding multinational corporation, I’d want to see a Tory victory.
Why? Because those are the people who are monopolising the wealth that should be shared by each and every one of us in this country. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a contribution to make and a life to lead. Poverty and homelessness are a disaster for the individual and a loss to all of us.
It is wealth that should belong to the majority and not a tiny minority.
Labour is the party that will put the interests of the majority first, while the Tories only really care about those who already have so much.
That is why we will prove the establishment experts wrong and change the direction of this election. Because the British people know that they are the true wealth creators, held back by a system rigged for the wealth extractors.
He is dead wrong, obviously – coercive, large scale redistribution destroys wealth faster than it can parcel it out, dooming people to receive ever more equal slices of a rapidly miniaturising pie. But by God, Corbyn sounds convincing when he makes his case because he actually believes what he is saying, and because it fits into a coherent wider narrative which supports the entire Corbynite worldview.
Meanwhile, here is the prime minister launching the Conservative Party’s election campaign in Bolton:
And that’s what this election is about. Providing the strong and stable leadership this country needs to take Britain through Brexit and beyond. It’s about strengthening our hand in the negotiations that lie ahead. And it’s about sticking to our plan for a stronger Britain that will enable us to secure that more stable and secure future for this country and take the right long term decision for the future. It’s about strong and stable leadership in the national interest. And you only get that strong and stable leadership by voting for the Conservatives. Because that’s what Conservatives government provides. And just look at what we’ve done.
[..] when I took over as Prime Minister, the country needed clear vision and strong leadership to ensure that we got on with that job of delivering on Brexit for the British people and that’s exactly what we did. We delivered that strong and stable leadership, we delivered the certainty that strong and stable leadership can give. And that’s what leadership looks like. Now there’s a very clear choice at this election. It’s a choice between strong and stable leadership under the Conservatives, or weak and unstable coalition of chaos led by Jeremy Corbyn.
And that is very clear. Let’s look – the other parties are lining up to prop up Jeremy Corbyn. We’ve seen it with the Liberal Democrats, and we see it with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish nationalists. They’re very clear that they want to do everything they can to frustrate our Brexit negotiations. To undermine the job that we have to do, the task that lies ahead. Do everything to stop us from being able to take Britain forward. And it’s their tunnel vision focus on independence that actually provides uncertainty. They want to pull the strings, try to pull the strings of this election, prop up Jeremy Corbyn and provide more risk and uncertainty for the British people and that’s not in Britain’s interests.
So it’s only a vote for the Conservatives that can deliver, and every vote for the Conservatives is a vote for me and local Conservative candidates, and it’s a vote to ensure that we have that strong and stable leadership that we need to take us through Brexit and beyond. Every vote for me and the local Conservative candidates here and across Britain is a vote to deliver on that plan for a stronger Britain and a more secure future for us all. And if we have that certainty of five more years of strong and stable leadership then we can ensure that we’re delivering for people, for ordinary working people up and down the country, across the whole United Kingdom.
This isn’t a speech. It is a soundbite delivery mechanism, the flavourless rhetorical equivalent of a Ryvita cracker, designed to drill the phrase “strong and stable leadership” so deep into the minds of voters (the exact phrase is repeated twelve times) that we all walk zombie-like to the polling stations on 8 June, muttering the phrase to ourselves as we dribble down our chins.
As a political speech, it has no poetry because it was conceived by partisan political calculation rather than any deep conviction about what’s best for Britain. “Vote Tory to prevent the other parties from either influencing or thwarting Brexit” is Theresa May’s message – an implausible message in itself, considering that the prime minister only came to believe in the deep wisdom of Brexit after the British people had voted to Leave.
As a modern political speech (with the bar set accordingly low), Theresa May’s effort will probably be quite effective though. Getting up on a stage and ranting about strong and stable leadership is a very effective way of implying that the various jabbering parties of the Left will screw everything up given half the chance, either by naively giving everything up to Europe in the negotiations for no commensurate return, or by descending into infighting over whether to push for a softer Brexit or seek to thwart Brexit entirely.
The Tory position – advocating a hard Brexit and exit from the single market, to be replaced with a fictional comprehensive deal within two years – is moronic. But it does have the advantage of being easy to understand. Now imagine Corbyn, Sturgeon, Lucas and Farron all sat around the Cabinet table. Do they collectively push to stay in the EU or just for the closest relationship with the EU? Who knows? Ergo chaos, versus Theresa May’s “strong and stable” leadership.
But what of other issues than Brexit? Where is the ringing defence of Conservative principle? The speechwriter crams this material – such as it is – into the final paragraphs, very much as an afterthought:
But it’s also about getting the right deal for ordinary working people here at home, and that’s about building a strong Britain. Britain is the strongest country in Europe in terms of economic growth and national security.
It’s about building a stronger economy. It’s about creating well paid secure jobs. It’s about ensuring that there is opportunity for all. That we provide a good school place for every child. That there is affordable housing. That people can get on in their lives. It’s about ensuring that we create a more united nation. That we take action against the extremists who want to divide us, and that we stand up to the separatists who want to break up our country. So it’s providing that strong and stable leadership.
That certainty. That stability for the future ,and that’s going to be our message as go out in to our election campaign. And I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to fight a positive and optimistic campaign about the future of this country. I’m going to be getting out and about around the country. I’m going to be visiting communities in every part of the United Kingdom. And I’m looking forward to taking our case out there to people. Because this is the case – that it is only with the Conservatives that you get the strong and stable leadership that this country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond.
That’s it. In other words: “blah blah authoritarianism blah, angrily insisting that the country be united while proposing zero tangible policies to actually rekindle shared British values and identity, blah. Cheap houses for everyone with no explanation of how or where they will be built, oh and I guess we’ll make schools great too, blahdy blah. Strong and stable leadership! Blah”.
What does Theresa May actually believe about anything? How does she intend to remake British society with her (hopefully) increased parliamentary majority? Who knows? I’m not remotely convinced that the prime minister knows herself.
What about tax reform, maybe simplifying the code, eliminating loopholes and lowering the burden on ordinary people?
What about constitutional reform, recognising that Brexit is the beginning and not the end, and pledging to devolve power to the home nations and regions, so that nobody can complain about the “Evil Tory” government in Westminster when their own local officials have greater power over taxes and services?
What about our national defence, committing to serious spending increases to reverse years of decline in our capabilities in order to increase our hard power?
What about an energy policy which frees Britain from dependence on rogue or ambivalent states while keeping costs low for consumers?
What about getting a move on with critical infrastructure projects like Heathrow Airport expansion, allowing other airports to expand too, and cutting the outrageously high Air Passenger Duty tax on flying, which increasingly makes Britain a pariah state for international business travellers?
What about – and I’m shooting for the moon on this one – an end run around the Labour Party, integrating health and social care, and doing it with a dispassionate fixation on healthcare outcomes rather than weepy tributes and pledges of loyalty to Our Blessed NHS?
Perhaps it will all become clear when the Conservative Party release their 2017 general election manifesto. But I wouldn’t count on it. I confidently expect to download that document and read a hundred more exclamations of “strong and stable leadership” while key policy questions are studiously ignored.
And yet all the smart money says that party whose leadership has a coherent worldview and the political courage to argue for it will lose seats in the general election, while the opportunists (Sturgeon, Farron), authoritarians (May, Sturgeon) and nonentities (Wood, Nuttall) do well, or at least escape cosmic justice for their ineptitude.
Assuming that the election goes as expected, rest assured that the next generation of political leaders will be watching and taking note.
Be opportunistic. Short-term tactical gain over long-term policy coherence. Soundbites over substance. Promise voters an easy, consequence-free life. Never tell the public difficult truths or call them to any kind of civic duty.
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