That debate again: picking over what’s left

Good news. As of Monday morning, the ravens had not yet deserted the Tower of London. They were, in fact, on notably frisky form, hopping and cawing and picking combatively at long-dead scraps of meaty-looking detritus as only ravens can.

Their slightly ghoulish cheerfulness seems to match the public mood, or at very least my own. Having recently despaired of the present general election as tiresome beyond words — see here — I’ve now decided that it’s actually quite entertaining.

The thing that changed my mind was, of course, last Thursday’s debate, to which my responses were uncharacteristically mainstream. Which is to say, once I’d stopped distracting myself by trying to figure out which shade of Farrow & Ball Estate® Emulsion most closely matched the strangely immobile surface of David Cameron’s face — in the end I plumped for Ointment Pink®, although admittedly this is a point upon which reasonable bloggers might, with honour, differ — I fell in with the general view that Gordon Brown looked old and tired, Cameron stiff and anxious, while Nick Clegg — hands in his pockets, eye-contact firmly established, making at least some of us wish that we were called ‘Jacqueline’ — positively shone, at least in relative terms.

Of course, television is an intrinsically stupid medium. Televised debates are, at best, an acceptable test of how well someone performs in a televised debate — nothing more. Most people who are really good on television couldn’t be trusted to run to the shops for a pint of milk, let alone tasked with negotiating the trackless and hazardous landscape of coalition government. So to that extent, the debate shouldn’t have mattered much at all.

And yet it’s transformed the mood of campaign. Where once there was the joyless run-up to a cheerless coronation, now, at least as far as CCHQ is concerned, we must surely be enjoying the beginnings of a bloodbath.

Whose combination of arrogance and tactical naivety, I wonder, informed the Tory decision to make the leadership debates possible, LibDem involvement and all? Whose idea was it, a relatively talented and occasionally even likeable shadow cabinet notwithstanding, to substitute for a normal campaign the assertion of a personality cult, focused almost entirely on the not notably charismatic figure of call-me-Dave himself? And who was it who thought that the personality cult, as well as negating the more collegiate campaign tradition, would also serve as an acceptable substitute for the provision of eye-catching, easy-to-understand, distinctive and positive policies?

Perhaps, in about a fortnight’s time, it may be worth considering some of these points, without which the giddy apotheosis of Mr Clegg — in so many ways, a smarter version of Dave than even Steve Hilton ever managed — would have been inconceivable.

This is not, by the way, to suggest that the Liberals have themselves done nothing clever on the way to the debates, or indeed thereafter. It has been interesting to see how little the post-debate assaults from both Labour and the Conservatives have been able to damage them. Not least, the ongoing factional warfare between the party’s entrenched social democrats and insurgent libertarians has somehow been repackaged as a way of appealing to all sorts of polities at once, so that those, for example, who fail to warm to the wit and wisdom of Uncle Vince, let alone the plangent complaints of Simon Hughes, may end up swooning, slightly, over the bracing rigour and vaguely sardonic manner of David Laws. Even curates’ eggs, it turns out, may easily tempt the underfed voter.

This also applies to the realm of policy. CCHQ briefings which seek to scare straying Tories back into the fold with tales of egregious Liberal lunacy — broad hints that Liberals would de-criminalise drugs, pragmatically embrace the more enterprising and well-behaved sort of immigrant, and speed up the withdrawal from Afghanistan — all set alongside actual Liberal commitments to raising the personal allowance on income tax to £10,000, re-thinking Trident and not getting too heated up about the EU — have been known to backfire, as at least some of Thatcher’s more recently-neglected children find themselves thinking ‘hmm, yes, what a very good idea, why didn’t we think of that?’

Nor will it do, whatever CCHQ may assume to the contrary, to try to frighten voters by brandishing in front of them the grisly prospect of a hung parliament, in which Mr Clegg somehow shows his true colours by propping up a moribund Labour government. For one thing, not everyone is likely to see this scenario as notably more distressing than the prospect of an outright Tory victory.

Similarly, the last day or two has seen the start of charm-offensive on the part of the more relatively Tory-friendly Liberals — Clegg included — keen to remind floating voters that a decent showing for the Liberals could end up facilitating a minority Conservative government as plausibly as a minority Labour government. Indeed, rather as chronically fed-up American voters have historically played their own constitutional checks-and-balances card, consciously balancing a Republican executive with a Democrat legislature, is it impossible that at least some voters might, at this point, seek to ensure that neither Labour nor the Tories receive a wholehearted mandate? To the extent that a vote for Clegg is a vote against the other parties — a signal that while Labour is tired out and discredited, the Tories don’t at present provide a tolerable alternative — the momentum of sheer negativity propelling him onward is all but unstoppable.

At this point, I should perhaps add that, although self-evidently no very great fan of Mr Cameron and his works, I’m still enough of a tribal Tory to sigh a bit over this shambles of an election campaign — the wasted opportunities to condemn much of Labour’s agenda as actually wrong, rather than simply too shop-worn or badly-executed — the decent and hard-working candidates, activists and longtime voters who deserved better from a party to whom they give so much, yet which so often appears to hold them in contempt. In short, I not only wish the Tories were doing better at this point — I wish they deserved to do better.

Yet at the same time — what’s the point of fibbing about this? — I find myself strangely cheered up that the Cameroons’ attempted sabotage of a once-great party isn’t quite working as they hoped it would. For the first time in years, it’s become possible to see light at the end of the dark, airless, strange-smelling tunnel of Cameroon hegemony. And if the instrument of this transformation turns out to be Mr Clegg — a broadly likeable ex-public school boy of aristocratic origins who simply can’t bring himself to deny that he likes listening to Schubert — well then, one simply marvels anew at the frankly mysterious ways in which our earthly affairs so often turn out to be ordained.

It probably helps that, unlike many Tories, I don’t actually hate the Liberals. There are plenty of reasons for this, every last one of them the accidental, contingent stuff of personal biography. One thinks, for instance, of contemporaries who decamped from the Tories for a host of decent, principled and wholly understandable reasons, apparently finding a happy and productive home amongst the Liberal Democrats. One thinks also of younger friends, for whom the guiltlessly Thatcherite Conservatism of the 1980s would surely have been the most natural of ideological identifications, who in the early years of the present century for some reason opted to align with the LibDems instead. These friends are by no stretch of the imagination silly, unperceptive or, for that matter, lacking in cynicism. And for that reason alone, casual dismissal of the Liberals — let alone plain old-fashioned loathing — isn’t really an option, at least for this Tory.

Let’s be clear — I’d never vote Liberal. To do so would be to ignore everything that, historically, makes the Liberal Party and its present-day lineal descendent distinctive and significant. The historic empathy with secularism, the obsessions with economics and sociology, the commitment to rationalistic reform of the constitution and the electoral system, the fetishisation of ‘science’ and ‘fairness’ and ‘progress’, the use of taxation as an engine of social improvement, the embarrassment when confronted with facts of wealth or property or hierarchical privilege, the assumption that virtue ought to be a more an ongoing civic project than a private moral goal, the zealous intolerance of non-liberal stances both abroad and at home — most of all, the visceral instinctive contempt for history, tradition, belief and, indeed, visceral instinct itself as proper litmus-tests for legitimate political action — none of this is what I want, all of this is what I oppose, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to encourage it, even at the level of a casual protest-vote against the two other major parties, neither of which I find remotely satisfactory, at least in their contemporary forms.

And yet, looking back at this laundry-list of Liberal failings, the inescapable question arises — with which of these, if any, do Cameron’s Conservatives disagree? It’s perhaps just as well that I’ve a fortnight left in which to chew over this notably rancid paradox.

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