Like the young woman from Glasgow, who raised the issue that will shape politics not only in Britain but the rest of the world for the foreseeable future – the climate emergency – I was not impressed by any of the candidates for conservative leader (and hence, prime minister) in last night’s debate; though it took some reflection to work out why.
I had, unusually for me, spent half an hour that morning voluntarily listening to BBC Radio 4 instead of switching to Radio 3 as soon as my wife was out the door because I found myself spellbound by Jonathan Sumption’s final Reith Lecture. Sumption, formerly a Justice of the UK Supreme Court, demonstrates that in an age of vacuous blether it is still possible to speak lucidly on complex matters, to be both intelligent and intelligible (unlike the current US president, who is neither). His subject was Britain’s unwritten constitution. His somewhat chilling concluding remarks are worth quoting in full:
‘Prophets are usually wrong, but one thing I will prophesy; we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours.’ ( read full transcript here)
‘Meaningless rhetoric’ characterised much of what we heard from the five candidates last night: they were cloyingly polite to the selected members of the public who posed them questions, chummy amongst themselves – all first names and freely acknowledging each other’s worth (‘Saj makes a good point there’) but you would not have thought these were five men bidding for the position that would incidentally make them leader of the country –- the whole thing was curiously muted. They often talked over one another, producing an unintelligible gabble, but voices were not raised and there was no discernible passion. There was an overall lack of conviction, like a group of actors rehearsing a script that each of them knows is a stinker. They were, like the man swimming in a sewer, merely going through the motions.
It was only later, in a moment of sudden insight, that the reason for this curious lack of conviction dawned on me: each of them knows that, no matter who wins, they are embarked on a disastrous course from which they cannot turn back. It is quite possible that whoever emerges as victor will be not only the last Conservative Prime Minister but also the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The positions put forward by the candidates in last night’s debate were neither to win the approval of their colleagues in the conservative parliamentary party nor for that part of the national TV audience that were actually watching (my brother texted me to say I was missing an excellent game in the Women’s World Cup between Brazil and Italy). They were addressed to the only audience that actually had a say in the matter, the ones who will ultimately decide, the conservative constituency associations (whose member ship totals around 124,000).
And each of the candidates knew that, in addressing that constituency, there were certain things that must be said and, more importantly, left unsaid. Brexit must be delivered, ideally by the 31 October. The only real question was who was best equipped to deliver it. The idea that it might not be a good idea at all and that perhaps we should think again could not be mentioned; nor could the fact that changing the British Prime Minister did not materially alter the situation vis-a-vis the EU: there is no scope for further negotiation of the withdrawal agreement; the Irish backstop cannot be removed or time-limited.
Only Rory Stewart came near to pointing out that there was no scope for further negotiation and no time to do anything by October 31st, but even he baulked at stating openly what all of them know, that leaving the EU is a bad idea that will harm the British economy, damage business and lose jobs as well as greatly weakening our standing in the world: any trade deal we try to strike as an individual country with any of the major economic powers – China, the USA, India and indeed the EU itself – will be negotiated from a position of weakness.
These things have been stated by members of the Conservative party, but only by yesterday’s men, the now toothless big beasts such as John Major, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine who are very much fringe spectators, not active participants. The more generally voiced attitude expressed by the mainstream of the parliamentary party is that ‘we just need to get on and do it’ – a classic piece of political chicanery to take a phrase that resonates with millions of ordinary people and misapply it. There are a great many people (most of them women and mothers, I would venture) who are all too familiar with the daily necessity of ‘just getting on with it’, who know that, no matter what calamity has befallen, the daily necessities need to be attended to –children still need to be got up and fed and sent to school, money must be earned to pay the bills and put food on the table.
However – and this is the crux of the matter – they do not use that expression when they find themselves convinced that they have been following the wrong road for some time and that somewhere in the mist up ahead it goes over a precipice.
What you say then is not, ‘we must just get on’ but rather ‘stop! we are going the wrong way! we must turn back!’
What I saw last night, I think, was the realisation dawning on all five candidates that the moment when any of them might have said that has passed: each is now committed to following a course that none of them believes in.