Spot the real Conservative: David Cameron and William Hague
Politics is the last thing anyone wants to discuss at a general election. For as long as most of us can remember, these strange contests have been fought through national advertising campaigns, TV trivia and through the personal images and reputations of increasingly presidential party leaders. The campaigns are usually enlivened, and sometimes taken over by shameless scare stories in which one side or the other seeks to frighten people into abandoning its opponent.
Then there are those peculiar episodes known only to political journalists as "gaffes", usually a moment when an exhausted or exasperated frontbencher suddenly says what he or she actually thinks and then has to be disowned. I was myself once embroiled in such a gaffe, the moderately famous "Jennifer's Ear" episode of 1992, also known as "Grommetgate" because it concerned the insertion of grommets into the ears of small children. Details of the affair, which still causes a modest but important number of Labour-supporting people to hate me, are available on request. It is now as obscure and puzzling as the Schleswig-Holstein question, of which Lord Palmerston said that only three men in Europe understood it: one was dead, another in an asylum, and he himself had forgotten it.
But Jennifer's Ear, whatever it was, did perform a useful purpose. It enabled people who didn't like the look of the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock but didn't know why to give themselves a reason for their unease about him. For 1992 was, almost as much as 2010 will be, a contest between parties which do not even want to be especially different. Mr Kinnock had, in the Cold War past, been rather faint-hearted about national defence. But the 1989 revolutions had made that meaningless, along with most of the other dividing lines of post-1945 British, European and North American politics. Nothing of any significance separated him from John Major, a man whose background was in apolitical municipal affairs and who spoke of his desire for a classless society. In many ways, the British people chose, without knowing it, the prototype New Labour government when they returned Mr Major to Downing Street in 1992. Politically correct, weak on the European Union, committed to a gigantic welfare state and defeatist on Northern Ireland, is it really very hard to imagine Mr Major going on to abolish the hereditary peers, introduce Welsh and Scottish devolution and civil partnerships, as well as signing the Lisbon Treaty? After all, he fought for Maastricht.
Does this matter? Why should we be concerned that all major politicians now seem broadly agreed on every major topic and many minor ones too? Doesn't this just mean that the days of silly partisan posturing are over and that we are to be governed by reasonable men, under the discipline of occasional elections? I can quite see why people who call themselves "progressive" would think this. What is fascinating about this political season is that many who would certainly not call themselves that are also arguing for the joys and virtues of what they term the "Centre Ground". We are told that the British people are "moderates" and that a "moderate" Tory Party will appeal to them, seducing them from New Labour. Judging by the generosity to the Tories of formerly Blairish newspapers such as the Guardian, and the even more extraordinary kindnesses shown to David Cameron by the BBC, this is certainly the case in the important media classes. But what is much more disturbing is that so many people, whom I know to have conservative heads and hearts, appear to believe that this is a good thing. An extraordinary, sterile silence has descended not just over Tory politicians, but also over conservative journalists and commentators. It is simply not done to criticise the Cameron project. If you do so, you are at first shushed, as if you had made a scene in church. After that you are ignored with icy, aristocratic scorn.
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