Tuesday, May 27, 2014

That quaint sound you heard yesterday, it turns out, was Tony Blair acting like a prime minister. The bar for the post isn't set too high, just at the moment, but the man with Chilcot on his mind still managed to grant interviewers a better response to Ukip than the present generation of Westminster “leaders” have managed.
For some of us, that counts as a condemnation in its own right. When you have to rely on Mr Blair for a bit of straight talking, Alice is all the way down the rabbit hole. The serial fabulist did not say anything remarkable, in any case, but at least he managed to say it. Ukip, the self-styled leading party of this Great Britain, are “unpleasant”.
That will do for starters. Mr Blair, who knows whereof he speaks, added “nasty” to be going on with. Forgetting the old habit of triangulation for a second, the politician they would all like to be – a fact that explains a lot – added this: “I am afraid, with those forces, you have got to be prepared to stand up, lead and take them on”.
Given the latest little crisis for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that's hardly Socratic wisdom. But it tempts you to ask, first, what the job description involves, then whether the current flock of Chicken Licken impersonators down by the Thames have the faintest clue of what Mr Blair might mean.
In his dreams, Nick Clegg probably still believes he “took on” Nigel Farage and suffered grievously for his heroism in those silly televised debates. Over the weekend, senior Liberal Democrats – who certainly know better – were still spinning the line that their leader had paid the price of courage. First he had thrown his body inside a ministerial Jaguar for the country's sake, then he had defended “Europe”, deep in the valley of psephological death.
Little of this is true, and none of it is relevant. Mr Clegg's problems in tackling Mr Farage are precisely equivalent to his party's wider crisis. The Liberal Democrats are becoming acquainted with the sight and smell of oblivion because voters meant what they said. They don't trust Nick Clegg and they will never trust him again. The party can go down with all hands (one more time) or drop the pilot. “As soon as humanly possible” might just do.
For the likes of Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, this must all seem a little piquant. The famous private ruthlessness of the Lib Dems is in abeyance, all of a sudden. But the Liberal tradition in British politics is at risk of extinction, incapable even of explaining why Ukip is abhorrent, because Mr Clegg is regarded universally as less trustworthy than a wideboy with a thing about foreigners. Personally, I'd have that wound looked at. Urgently.
Labour meanwhile is still pursuing the fantasy that the emergence of a racist party can work to Ed Miliband's advantage. Dignity is set aside while the hacks pore over council results and polled marginals in an attempt to work out where Ukip will bleed the Tories most. The striking – and more – result for Mr Farage's crew in Yorkshire and The Humber is forgotten for the sake of crunched London numbers. The issue here involves the wood and the trees.
Even if you accept that European election results predict nothing, the reviews on Mr Miliband are in. Opinion polls, gross vote tallies, council results: they all say that his edge over David Cameron's Conservatives is minimal where it even exists. The England that is not London says that Mr Miliband is not a prime minister. For Labour's daydreamers, time's up.
Those who stay awake are working, instead, to construct a tale in which Ed edges it. They have to consider, first, whether the Ukip vote is durable. Are all those who don't mind a bit of polite racism liable to stick with Mr Farage? In this regard, Lord Ashcroft's private stock of polls has become popular among those cobbling together a “narrative”. So Labour panders a little and prays that right-wing opinion splits asunder: that's a plan, of sorts.
It's not quite what Mr Blair calls standing up, or leading, but Mr Miliband doesn't have those luxuries. Labour's chief strategic decision now is over the extent to which Britain – let's call that a geographical term – has moved to the deep right. Yesterday, talking in Thurrock, the leader managed to say he will not take the UK out of the EU, but he said precious little more. He “understands”? That's nice, thought any voter still bothering to pay attention.
Oddly, bizarrely, the Tories are probably better placed for now than any of the competing franchises. Mr Cameron is entitled to believe that horrors unfolding in France or Denmark will concentrate a few minds among the EU elites. Even Frau Merkel might be a little less obdurate in the face of a continental insurgency when Mr Cameron insists on reform. The idea that Britain might pull the pin should, in theory, win the Prime Minister a few of the victories he needs so desperately.
The Tory Party knows how to placate racism. Pandering is, in essence, its purpose. But the belief that Mr Cameron can persuade each state of the EU to countersign his next election manifesto is silly. The free movement of people – the heart of the matter – touches the economic interests of too many member countries. So Mr Cameron's Tories can twist or stick: some marginal reforms that Mr Farage will chuckle over, or a surrender to Ukip.
How many guesses would you like? I hear lots of things about what can be achieved in Scotland's Union with other parts of these islands. One turns out to be called Farage. I witness the spectacle – Mr Blair might call it unpleasant – of people who would preserve that Union exulting happily in a tenth of a third of the Scottish electorate giving a job to a candidate from Kensington. Go on: inspire me some more.
Amid Ukip noise, the Scottish National Party managed, as always, to overplay a good hand. Is Scotland utterly different from the folk next door? Of course it is. Do the (very simple) sums. Is Ukip then England's problem? At the risk of saying something twice, I suggest that the dazed reactions from the Westminster parties contain all of the story. Alex Salmond and his party overreached again: big deal. England is a right-wing country; this isn't.
“Our” Ukip MEP is all for banning same-sex marriages. Getting shot of him is going to be lots of fun in the months ahead. Does he represent Scotland's statistically-average share of people-who-don't-like-things? Of course. And should you be content with the fact that 10.4% of your fellow active voters probably wouldn't invite you round for a drink?
Mr Farage is a face, duly elected, of modern Britain. The former City trader with a thing about foreigners would be proud, I think, to be described as such. I look forward, therefore, to seeing this leading politician of the entrancing United Kingdom on a Better Together poster. Just so I know.


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