There is, famously, a tide in the affairs of man. One can’t help but feel that those of the Conservative Party are at the ebb. Blame what you will but almost inevitably, after so long in power, the government looks tired, rudderless and disunified. Its MPs are a rabble, the body politic enfeebled by European kryptonite and its many wannabe leaders squabbling to see who should be the latest to sit atop the dung heap and crow.
“Keep everything in the farm yard upset in every way
The dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl.”
The Conservatives have lost their little red rooster. The cock is no longer a-hoop. The Blues are playing the blues.
All of which reminds me of 1997, not merely in the shift from Major to minor, nor the seeming inevitability of a Labour government, but in a particular incident which daily becomes more amplified in the sheer unpleasantness of the background music.
The Daily Telegraph, for which esteemed organ I was working at the time, held an election night party at a West End venue which it took over for the evening. There was to it a sort of fin d’époque levity. Few were under any illusions as to who was going to win and most saw the looming result as a necessary washing, a bit like when the tide floods Execution Dock three times and the crabs cleanse the cadavers.
For the smart, there was also the feeling that New Labour presented new opportunity for the Telegraph in becoming a newspaper in opposition. Some, like a tyro columnist called Boris Johnson, flourished. Others, such as political editor George Jones, were to suffer from Campbellesque pique at declining to take dictation during the long media honeymoon that followed. But I digress.
Across the evening, the great and the good came and went as the wine flowed and the results came in, summarised largely by “Lab gain”. At one point, a party representing what I shall discreetly describe as “an acting interest” arrived carrying with them the political allegiances thesps so often do and the prerequisite desire to perform.
It is much to turn up at someone else’s do, drink the best booze, insult the host and make a pass at his wife but, metaphorically, they managed it. The upper middle class equivalent of bursting into a Tottenham pub dressed in red and white, seeing off the nearest fella’s pint, and chanting the score of a recent Arsenal victory. The Telegraph at the time reflected its then editor, Charles Moore, in a decent gentility so, in being asked to leave, they managed quite a feat.
A bit wine-fuelled and over-excited perhaps. But it was also the beginning of something that has accelerated, like so many social phenomena, in recent years. The need, on the part of the Left, to take personal vituperative issue with anyone who represents a different view and to imbue it with a righteousness that excuses it of anything from basic bad manners to outright hatred.
You may argue that this isn’t new, that since Nye Bevan’s “lower than vermin” or the miner’s strike, the Left has felt a sort of moral entitlement to confuse political difference with bitter personal condemnation that renders opponents as something less than human.
And I would agree. Having been to a northern university in the angry 80s, the capacity for certain parts of the student body to out-do the local mining population for sheer puce-faced intolerance of disagreement is well-established in memory.
But they were fringe. And anyway, the electorate had an unfortunate habit of ignoring them and voting Thatcher back in with huge majorities. It is an irritant for people who constantly claim to represent “the people” or “the workers” when the people or the workers largely ignore them, largely because the claim was made by the militant middle class.
They were out. Not Maggie. And their cries in the wilderness were as much frustration as genuine dislike.
A spell after that Telegraph party, I was at the Labour Party conference. The atmosphere split between a New Labour smug triumphalism, which one might understand, and a hard Left fury which was visceral and vocal and manifested itself from the bars to the “merch” stands.
They were prepared to indulge Blair’s centrism for the brief glorious moment where victory was vindication and the very mention of the word “Tory” was akin to mentioning “Brit” in the darkest kind of Irish pub after the doors are locked and all the faces known and accounted for.
Much the same circumstances seem to pertain now and, with them, a commensurate rise in the volume and level of what can only be described as “hate speech”.
Victory is within sight, bringing with it all and the glee, nervousness and pent-up energy that the first glimpse of the line brings. Daring to win after so much defeat takes much from you and the prospect of being in among a beaten enemy and showing no mercy is a temptation few can resist under those circumstances.
Like ‘97, the media and the electorate are bored. The story is finally about to change and to cast any aspersion on a weak and chaotic incumbent is understood and forgiven.
Like ’97, if polling is to be believed, the Labour Party looks finally to represent something that “the people” feel. Having misread them on Brexit, on immigration, on Corbynomics, at the Red Wall and in the City, suddenly all is with them in last week’s politically disastrous “fiscal event”.
And what it prompted was an outpouring of the most appalling personal anti-Tory abuse inflamed by innuendo and misinformation – often via conveniently anonymous sources – and disseminated through social media. While, on TV, a nurse appeared on the Jeremy Vine show to claim that anyone who voted Conservative does not deserve to be resuscitated by the NHS and should be left to die.
A nadir to which the constant claim to the moral high ground, the near religious fervour with which certain causes are espoused must inevitably lead.
When you carry the True Cross, all sin is forgiven in pursuit of the crusade. When the enemy is infidel, no inquisitorial excess too much. Hate them. Let them die. Deus lo veult. The ends justify the means. Social media, the match to the pyre of the unbeliever. Flame them.
One can catastrophise to the point, as the Left often does, of “first they came for..”. But already one can see that holding a public position of which, for example, a nurse disapproves or a view on taxation and redistribution which does not conform to the “progressive” is increasingly an act of moral courage.
This is fine to the extent that we remain protected by the anonymity of the polling booth but, as Northern Ireland discovered in its darkest days, the prying eye, the knock at the door, the threat to the teller, the mob at the polling station are a short step away when the tribalism of belief starts to be invoked.
The last week or so have been an instruction in political incompetence, irrespective of your view on the need for economic reform. What looks like the dying days of a long spell of Conservative government largely untroubled by professionalism or distinguished leadership.
But the backdrop and ambience have been far more disturbing. The polar opposite of the unity and dignity of a nation in mourning for their Queen. There is a horror in our politics. A moralistic fervour. An animus. An ugliness. It will fracture us. Or even worse.
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