Thursday, April 21, 2005

When are they going to get down to serious politics?

First in The Daily Telegraph yesterday comes Ferdinand Mount, who poses the question: "There's a big world out there - why is this election ignoring it?" Then, in today’s Times comes Peter Riddell, with a piece entitled: "What you see is not what you get".

In their own ways different pieces, they also offer a single theme, one rehearsed in this Blog and one increasingly preoccupying commentators. That theme, essentially, is: "what they are leaving out of the election?"

Ferdinand Mount picks on two main issues, the decision to invade Iraq and the European Union, issues he believes are foremost in the minds of the most agitated voters at this election.

Every Leftish person I bump into, he writes, is obsessed with Blair's lies in the run-up to war. Every Rightish person is exercised by the latest excesses of Brussels and in despair at our apparent impotence to undo them, let alone to find a stable and enduring relationship with the EU, in or out of it. Every tobacconist and taxi driver is liable to let rip on either front.

He continues: "There are not one but two elephants in our sitting room. And the politicians are doing their best to pretend that neither of them is there," from which he concludes that, "for an outward-looking country like ours to go through a whole election without mentioning the world is a disheartening prospect. We deserve better than to be turned into one big ostrich farm."

Riddell, on the other hand, takes a more sanguine view, observing that election campaigns are a poor guide to what happens over the following four or five years, and suggests that "it is an invariable rule" that the big events of parliament were neither predicted nor debated during the preceding campaign. More often, big issues are either ignored or played down, he writes.

Equally dangerous, he asserts, is where the main parties agree. In 1992, all three parties supported sterling’s involvement in the European monetary system. Any hint of devaluation or realignment, while considered privately, was suppressed. The Maastricht treaty on European union was raised only by backbench sceptics. Yet the political debacle of Black Wednesday and the year-long battles over the Maastricht Bill in 1992-93 fatally weakened the Major Government, even if it took several more years to die.

After reviewing that key issues that were not discussed in earlier campaigns, he asserts that this campaign has been similarly unilluminating on other issues, notably Europe:

None of the three main parties wants to discuss the EU for fear that it may lose them votes. Yet decisions on the EU constitution could have big implications for Britain. Of course, there is the shadow of the French referendum on May 29 and the Dutch one a few days later. It is not just that "no" votes would bury the constitution but also that Jacques Chirac's authority would be undermined for the final two years of his presidency. In the medium term, and that could mean most of the rest of Mr Blair's premiership, there would be a limbo period, as economic reform and institutional change both stall — though awkward decisions are likely only to be deferred.
Thus he concludes that Europe, to which he adds the economy, Iraq, terrorism, could all overshadow the current campaign arguments in the next Parliament.

This definitely strikes a chord. After a full day out on the stumps, in a rural backwater, this day devoted mainly canvassing, many of the usual issues were raised but – despite my posting of yesterday – a surprisingly large number of people raised the issue of "the war" and "Europe", entirely spontaneously. And more than one angrily demanded in either context, "when are they going to start talking about…".

Mount and Riddell are at one with the country. We watch in amazement as the politicos squabble about their "schools'n'hospitals" and wonder when they are going to get down to serious politics.

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