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We are not the only ones

Posted by Helen Thursday, September 29, 2005

Some people accuse us on this blog of being unduly gloomy in our analysis of developments in this country and, often, the West. There are blue skies over there, they cry, pointing to stormy clouds. Well, behind those clouds, they say. And so there are. Probably. Right now, there are more stormy clouds than blue skies.

We are not alone in thinking this. An excellent piece by Melanie Phillips, who, as our readers will recall, was the only British journalist to challenge Verheugen at a get-together in Sanssouci, as described by her colleague, John Lloyd, was published in the Daily Mail and on her website.

Its title, The Death of Politics, tells you all or most of what you need to know. She opens by something we, too, have noted. The conference season is a great big yawn nowadays. Who really cares what those people say in the various sea-side hotels? Not even the political correspondents can work up any energy.

“Far from a quickening of its pulse, political life appears to be rapidly passing into a coma. Rather than a great clash of principles, it has degenerated into an unprincipled, unfocused and incoherent rearrangement of the stage scenery by politicians who appear to have not the slightest clue what script they are supposed to be articulating.”
Indeed.

She then goes through the three main parties and their performance. The Lib-Dims she describes rather wittily as a “shambles led by a donkey”, a much more appropriate phrase than the original one about the First World War officers.
“Yet so great is the malaise in our political life that they are talked about in all seriousness as a more potent challenge to the government than the Tories,the party which is still performing its long-running impersonation of a slow train crash.”
Phillips is deeply uninspired by the leadership contest, scornfully dismissing Ken Clarke as well as his opponents, because, as, she rightly points out, “none of them seems to be motivated by anything deeper than the desire to gain power for its own sake”.

“So while they are busy making speeches tacking to right or left as appropriate -- or both simultaneously -- or calculating on the back of an envelope whether David or Ken will scoop up David’s or Liam’s or Malcolm’s votes when they drop out, they are letting the Government get away with one policy disaster after another with at best only a pallid protest.”
Well, indeed, the Opposition does seem to have gone AWOL. One of the great dangers of that is to the government of the day, who become completely oblivious to reality. This happened to some extent to the Conservatives in the eighties. It is certainly happening to Labour now.

As Melanie Phillips says:
“As for Labour, although it remains the only show in town because of the weakness of the Opposition, it is itself still riven by the poisonous feud between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and the tension between New and Old Labour. Tony Blair remains an utterly devalued Prime Minister, isolated within his own party and unable to get his way however many czars and advisers and delivery units he establishes.”
What has brought about this parlous state of affairs? Phillips gives an interesting explanation, which, naturally, we do not disagree with as it is not that far off our own:
“One important reason is that all three parties are stuck in the politics of the past while the world has utterly changed around them. They have all lost their identities in a universe where old certainties have been torn up and divisions that once defined the political landscape no longer exist.

Instead of parties opposing each other, they are now deeply divided within themselves. Over taxes or public spending, whether the public services should be run by the state or the market, or moral issues such as family life,gay rights or drug legalisation, it is hard to say what any of these parties believes because they are so divided. Indeed, if you shut your eyes you cannot tell a Tory social liberal or Europhile from a Blairite believer or a LibDem.

This is because three parties are still structurally organised around issues that are no longer the ones that divide people -- while the issues that do divide people very profoundly cross all party lines.”
“What we are suffering from is a dearth of political leadership. There is no-one with a deeply held vision and the charisma to put it across that can galvanise the country. That is because the best and brightest no longer go into politics;and that is because this is no longer where the power is. Influence now lies elsewhere -- because politicians have made the big issues off limits and because power has drained away to bodies such as the EU.”
Phillips does not say so, but it is hard to avoid a conclusion that a complete realignment is needed. Of course, people at the top now do not see it that way, as a realignment would cause them some difficulties. It may happen, however, whether they like it or not.

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