I believe it was Oscar Wilde who was once asked what he thought about Charles Dickens’ heart-rending description of the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop; a literary sensation in its time.
“You would need a heart of stone”, intoned the great Irish wit, “not to get a laugh out of it.”
On Tuesday evening I was reminded of these words as I watched Gordon Brown’s final, and very moving, performance outside the door of Number 10 Downing Street, just before he headed for the Palace and the political wastelands beyond.
There is an innate tragedy in witnessing a big man being brought low by events. And there can be no doubt that Gordon Brown is a big man; in stature, in the vast cragginess of his features, and in the depth and resonance of his voice, if nothing else. So, when the last choked words passed his lips and he turned away, why was I grinning?
Almost exactly thirteen years ago Tony Blair, the joint author with Brown of the New Labour project, was welcomed to Downing Street by a roaring crowd of party activists who had been bussed in specially for the occasion, to make sure that it looked as though the whole nation was euphoric about his election victory. Standing in exactly the same place where Brown was now giving his tear-jerking performance, he fixed those rather troubling eyes firmly on the cameras and, after a dramatic pause, intoned his first message to the public as prime minister; ‘A new dawn has broken ….’.
I remember thinking at the time that he might have come up with something a bit better than that well-worn cliché, but then no one could have foreseen that we were witnessing the dawn of an age of cliché. In fact one might even suggest that clichés have been the hallmark of the thirteen years that followed; the ever dependable props of a government that rarely seemed able to think further ahead than the next morning’s headlines.
So when Gordon Brown finally turned away with the parting words, ‘Thank you, and goodbye’, it seemed altogether fitting that the age of New Labour should come to an end with one of the oldest, most mind numbing, and banal of all clichés.
It is now a week since the last ballot papers were counted, and we seem to be divided into those who are still trying to work out what the voters were trying to say, and those who are pretending that they know, in spite of there not being much evidence to go on. At this point, the Lib-Con coalition must still be regarded as an uncertain, and very risky, experiment.
This coming together of apparently irreconcilable political opponents is being promoted as the only panacea for the nation’s terrifying economic maladies. But during the campaign, none of the parties were honest about the enormity of the sacrifices that will be required from the electorate before recovery is in sight. Only the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, who should at all times be well separated from politics, seems to have made a realistic contribution. Apparently he told an American economist that the winner of the election would soon afterwards be out of office for a generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be. That is probably a very fair perspective from someone who should know.
I will not dwell on the ‘puke-factor’ of the love-in that was staged in the Downing Street gardens on Wednesday afternoon. It certainly went way off the scale in my view. Politics is, and almost always has been, an adversarial business in the UK. There is probably a good reason for that; it works well in a country were there is a democracy so secure that it doesn’t even need a written constitution. The electorate can safely be presented with a wide range of strongly held views, and then given the opportunity to choose between them. Which brings us back to trying to understand what the electorate might, or might not, have been trying to say last Thursday.
One thing is certain, electoral reform was not at the top of most people’s shopping list when they were trying to decide where to make their mark on the ballot paper.
Now we have the result of a general election in which the parties dissembled about the unpopular policies they would be required to inflict if they won, and an aftermath which has promoted constitutional reform, not our economic woes, to the top of the political agenda although that was not in any sense what the election was about. This is extremely perilous.
If we are not much interested in the constitution for most of the time, the least suggestion that someone might try to tamper with it has a dramatic effect. Already the voices of backbenchers and pundits are being raised in horror at the suggestion that procedures governing the dissolution of parliament are to be changed for the sake of making the coalition more secure. Although important, this is a minor change compared to the proposed move to a fixed term parliament, the radical re-drawing of constituency boundaries so that they each have the same population and, above all, dumping the first-past-the-post voting system in favour of AV.
Earlier this week, I heard Trevor Kavanagh, who I have long admired as one of our most perceptive political commentators - in spite of his long association with The Sun - speculate that although the declared object of the coalition is to make politics more broadly based and inclusive, the effect would be to gag dissenting back benchers in the two ruling parties and limit the pressure that they will be able to bring to bear on their leadership. His thinking was that a few rebels can do little real damage to a governing party with a healthy majority while still wielding some influence, but in a situation where we have a coalition, even with an adequate majority, there is a danger that such behaviour will cause inter-party stresses that could easily destabilise the fragile partnership that binds it together.
About the same time, David Shukman and Roger Harrabin of the BBC both acknowledged that there is widespread scepticism in the Conservative party about climate change. In the run-up to the election I, and many others in the blogosphere, predicted that the austerity that will be needed to restore fiscal stability would highlight the cost of creating a low carbon economy, and at last precipitate a real debate about the need to create a low carbon economy. We may have to wait for a while yet.
For the time being at least, it would seem likely that controversy over the constitutional changes that have been the raison d’être of Liberals for over a century without attracting the widespread support that they needed to do anything about it, will dominate politics at a time when all efforts should be focused on the economy. Lets not forget that, unlike the Conservatives, they actually lost seats in the election. They increased their vote by only 1% over the 2005 election in spite of a nearly 4% increase in turnout.
We know that the ship is heading for the rocks, but it’s not clear whether the makeshift watch on the bridge is still reading the right chart. Oh dear! What a weary old cliché.
PLEASE NOTE: This posts ends the general election season at Harmless Sky, during which the proprietor has probably been as guilty as anyone else in breaking the embargo on discussing party politics. The standard of discussion on the various threads has, I think, been extremely high, with the various winding by-ways of this last hectic week being explored in ingenious and original ways; sometimes at least. For that reason moderation has been relaxed, even when comments have drifted a little too far from the topic of the header post. After this it’s back to normal, although politics in the broadest sense will undoubtedly figure largely in posts during the coming months. Not least the choice of Chris Huhne and Caroline Spellman for the energy and environment portfolios respectively.