Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Growing Old, But Not Sad

Having dismissed the latest comments on his blog from the pro-drugs lobby, Peter Hitchens writes:

But I'll spend a little longer on the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election. Why? Because the result is so shocking, and such a departure from normal behaviour, that I remain amazed that it has attracted so little careful attention.

The issue is not who won. That's unimportant in the scheme of things. It would have been important if Labour had lost, since the seat was naturally theirs, and such a defeat would have changed the position of Edward Miliband, a man who is now so crudely and constantly attacked by cartoonists, sketch-writers and the rest of the conformist army of conventional wisdom that it is quite shocking. Why did this never happen to A. Blair or D. Cameron when they were novice leaders of the Opposition? Who decides who gets this treatment? Do readers of this stuff not realise that anyone could be its object if the whim of the time were different?

The cartoons in one Tory-supporting newspaper are quite astonishing in their continuous, obsessive hostility to the Labour leader, forgivable if directed at a head of government but almost totalitarian when directed against the constitutional Leader of HM Opposition. I have barely met Mr Miliband, and have no reason to suppose I agree with anything he thinks, but this sort of treatment, especially from within the steamy, lowing safety of a herd, is despicable.

We were told, as if it mattered constitutionally when it didn't, that Gordon Brown was 'unelected'. Well, he was an elected MP, and we don't have directly-elected premiers in this country, so the jibe was untrue and constitutionally meaningless. What was true was that the Labour Party had not put him through a leadership election. So what? The Tories did the same favour to Michael Howard after the putsch against Iain Duncan Smith, and nobody ever complained, which emphasises that this was not a serious question. Nor did Anthony Blair ever face a serious challenge in the Labour leadership.

Edward Miliband, by contrast, has fought and won an election to become his party's leader. But, like Mr Brown, he is not approved by whatever media coven it is that decides who is and is not fit to be Prime Minister (the same coven once rejected William Hague, too, though now it slobbers sycophantically at his feet). So his election is not deemed to count. It was won, they say, thanks to the trade unions. Let us leave aside the interesting question of whether the trade unions should have any say in the choice of the leader of the Labour Party, founded to advance their interests. I still have news for those who claim to be outraged by this. Mr Blair, whom they loved so much, also won the Labour leadership thanks to the trade unions, whose leaders fixed it for him from the start. So that can't be it, can it? Anyway, what really won it for Edward Miliband was his frank willingness to say unequivocally that the Iraq war was wrong. Anyone who has the faintest understanding of the Labour Party grasps that whoever was prepared to do this would have been almost certain to win the leadership against whoever was not, all other things being equal.

But back to the Coalition. You can decide for yourself whether its guiding principle is 'The Noble Lie' or the old and cynical belief 'Never let a decent crisis go to waste'. It adds up to the same thing. The founding myth of this government is the triple idea that Labour left Britain in a terrible economic mess (true), that nobody knew how bad it was till the books were opened (piffle) and that George Osborne alone understands how to fix it (Olympic piffle).

I am often chided here for having no interest in economics, but I think I can state here that the scale of the British economic crisis hugely dwarfs any of the measures proposed to deal with it, much as a mountain range dwarfs a sandcastle. They are simply not in the same scale of magnitude, and are mainly designed to restore confidence in the bond markets, since confidence is all that stands between us and the death of money, with all the Babylonian and apocalyptic results that would have. Heaven forfend.

Further, as I have already stated, these measures actually end by increasing the level of public spending, and will leave us in five years much as we are now, a grossly bloated welfare state living off a largely unproductive economy which has developed several ingenious ways of hiding the huge structural unemployment which has resulted from years of severe decline.

But of course they provide the opportunity for the government to pursue a number of long-cherished targets (notably severe and permanent reductions in military spending so that the money can be transferred to 'skoolz 'n' ospitalz') which the establishment has long wanted but not so far been able to achieve. My own county council likewise has long had its eye on several rather nice public libraries (I have my ideas as to why) which it now proposes to close, more or less on the grounds that this is some sort of national emergency. Personally, I have little doubt that an audit of its spending could produce many other possible cuts which would be more desirable. But that is not the point. The crisis is an opportunity to do what they have always wanted, and they are jolly well going to seize their chance.

About 400 people turned up to a public meeting in my Oxford suburb last week to protest against one of these library closures. I haven't seen a public meeting of this size since the 1970s, and - judging by the contributions - it was remarkably all-encompassing in terms of age, politics, etc. So perhaps parts of this agenda will actually become so unpopular that coalition will lose its momentum and raison d’ĂȘtre.

But I doubt it. Much more likely, the council will retreat where it encounters steel, and try something else instead. People who will rightly rally for a beloved library, a simple and in my view unimpeachable cause, will often be highly resistant to any general political implications of the planned closure. And in any case they have no leadership. There's no movement, let alone party, in this country consistently campaigning for rational, real, lasting cuts in public spending based on a major revision of social welfare policy, and there's not likely to be. The coalition is, however, pretending quite successfully to be such a thing - and to be an emergency, crisis government - and has as a result gained the support of a large chunk of the conservative middle classes.

That's why Tory voters did that astonishing thing in Oldham and Saddleworth last week, and voted in large numbers for a Liberal candidate. That's why, as long as they can be persuaded that this is a crisis government , they will continue to do so. And, having got into the habit - and having laid to one side the many conservative desires that I listed in this week's MoS column - they will continue to do so. I believe they will also cooperate with whatever Lib-Con pact, preferably informal, they are presented with at the 2015 general election. A formal deal might be a bit too much to take - yet. Hints and twitches of the eyebrows, and private advice, are better - as was shown in Oldham and Saddleworth, where nobody ever said openly 'Tories should vote Liberal', yet thousands did.

Taboos once broken soon vanish as if they had never existed. It is extraordinary how quickly people can abandon the habits and even opinions of a lifetime, if they are given a good pretext to do so. (The Global Warming panic is another successful way through which conservative-minded people are diddled into believing all kinds of rubbish because of the supposed existence of a crisis, and the alleged existence of a plan to deal with it.) So the supposed Tory right-wing revolt among discontented MPs has been squashed before it really got under way. Tory voters in the country don't want it and regard it as unpatriotic. And since this revolt offered no profound and principled challenge to Cameronism, it has no lasting force or shape, and will swell and shrink according to mood and circumstance. I believe it will in the end get nowhere, much like the fabled Labour left which was likewise rendered irrelevant by Blairism, which it never understood.

The strains in the Coalition will not come from the right, which is either fooled, squared or cowed. They will come from the Liberal Democrat left whose MPs and councillors face direct challenges from Labour. I suspect Mr Cameron, who has proved himself an astute strategist in his dubious cause, is aware of this risk, and that his plans for electoral reform (largely unexamined, though I intend to examine them soon) are meant to deal with this. Let us see. But the glimmer of hope which I optimistically espied a couple of weeks ago has been thoroughly doused by this by-election, yet more proof that optimism is invariably a mistake.

I still cannot see why more people are not dumbstruck by the willingness of Tory voters to vote tactically, en masse and without formal instructions to do so, for a Liberal candidate. It is quite momentous, and changes all calculations.

But is that really the case? The whole point of the Conservative Party has always been to harvest Tory votes for candidates who were in fact Liberal Unionists, Liberal Imperialists, National Liberals, Alfred Roberts's daughter and her devotees, those around the Institute of Economic Affairs, followers of David Owen, and now Lib Dems.

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