Joining up the dots
Published in: Daily Mail
While politicians of all parties are transfixed with horror by the expenses scandal in case their own practice of employing their relatives is suddenly held up to public obloquy, the revelations are likely to have far more serious consequences.
For the voters, this is but further reason for thinking ‘a plague on all your houses’. As the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Christopher Kelly, observed at the weekend, the affair has reinforced the public perception that standards of integrity haven't improved since the sleazy years of the 1990s.
Indeed, as soon as there is evidence of wrong-doing in one party people assume that all MPs have their snouts in the trough. And this is because public disillusionment reaches to the very heart of the political process.
There is now the most profound contempt for politicians who are seen as having betrayed the voters' trust, not just in matters of financial probity but across the board.
After his hesitant sacking of disgraced whip Derek Conway, David Cameron launched a pre-emptive damage limitation exercise by instructing every Tory MP to make public their own staffing arrangements. But the Tory leader has a far bigger problem. His lead in the opinion polls is nowhere near enough to win a majority at a General Election; in fact, very recently it has even been falling.
Given the extreme disarray - indeed, near meltdown - of the Government, it is remarkable that Cameron is failing to capitalise on the Prime Minister's difficulties. Indeed, virtually all the Conservative lead can be put down to the Government managing to turn voters off rather than the Tories managing to turn them on.
This is in large measure a result of Cameron's very deliberate strategy of ‘safety first’ — making it acceptable for people to vote Conservative again.
This defensive approach means ‘decontaminating the brand’ so that people no longer see the Tories as a bunch of heartless and out-of-touch weirdos, while saying absolutely nothing that might frighten the horses.
So the party won't propose any really distinctive or radical policies, but will wait instead for Gordon Brown's mistakes to deliver the voters into its lap.
But the voters don't seem to be playing. The resulting party unrest over the stalling of ‘safety first’ led over the weekend to a flurry of eye-catching Tory announcements, including a proposal to provide a dedicated maternity nurse for all new mothers for up to six hours a day in the first week of their baby's birth.
What transparent opportunism. Just how are the Tories proposing to pay for costly maternity nurses — currently restricted to the wealthy — when there aren't even enough midwives actually to deliver the babies in the first place? And how does this proposed army of state nannies fit with the Tories' much-trumpeted condemnation of Labour's nanny state.
This is precisely the kind of thing that makes people suspect politicians will say anything to get elected. And that in turn reinforces the lethal distrust of all politicians that has deepened from years of lies and dissimulation; broken promises that were never deliverable in the first place; an obsession with irrelevancies and a corresponding refusal to deal with voters' pressing concerns; and above all serial government incompetence.
In addition, while the parties are knocking six bells out of each other they are busy stealing each other's policies, trying to out-do each other on matters such as police stop-and-search, inheritance tax or contracting out health service provision while pretending all the time that it is their idea which the other guy has stolen.
The resulting public disaffection has created an appetite for 'anti-politics' embodied in candidates who stand in opposition to political division.
David Cameron initially scored great success precisely because, as a hands-on dad with his heart on his sleeve over polar bears and genocide victims in Rwanda, he didn't fit the Tory stereotype. This anti-politics mood is by no means confined to Britain. In the United States too, voters are weary of crude partisan point-scoring; they also yearn for problems to melt away in a warm bath of consensus.
The presidential primaries accordingly have been electrified by the dramatic rise, in both the Democrat and Republican parties, of outsider candidates who threaten to upset the conventional apple-cart.
Barack Obama, with his down-playing of racial differences and his effervescent platitudes, appears to offer a benign alternative to the sectarian, brutal machine politics of Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side, John McCain's appeal rests largely on the fact that he too is a maverick, combining hawkish views on Iraq with Left-wing attitudes towards social policies such as immigration, high taxes and global warming.
The vigour of this contest — particularly the desperate and dogged duel to the death between Hillary and Obama — is in sharp contest to our own deadened system, where Gordon Brown's decision not to call an election meant power passed from one Prime Minister to another with the voters given no say in the matter at all.
However, there is a major flaw in current American politics just as there is here. For it is not enough to be an outsider to the conventional political battleground. That challenge has to be based upon a coherent and consistent alternative vision.
Nor is it enough, as Cameron is being urged to do, merely to substitute radical boldness for a safety-first approach if he boldly and radically shoots off in the wrong direction.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the problem is that conservatives no longer know what must be conserved. Since McCain has adopted a socially liberal position, American conservatives who want bedrock Western values to be defended against Left-wing anti-family and anti-nation social engineering have simply been disenfranchised. They have no candidate at all to reflect their concerns.
British conservatives faced exactly the same kind of electoral abandonment when Cameron decided to pitch his appeal at the people-carrier Greenpeace classes. It was only when he started talking about defending marriage, abolishing inheritance tax and restricting immigration that his poll ratings soared.
Yet even this hasn't done the trick because the party is still giving too many conflicting messages. How, for example, can George Osborne credibly claim to be in favour of a low-tax, decentralised economy when he is committed to matching Labour's profligate public spending? Voters aren't stupid. They can see the story just doesn't add up. So although they may like David Cameron's style, they don't trust his substance. And that's lethal. ‘Anyone but Gordon’ then turns into ‘none of the above’.
The core problem besetting Britain, as in the U.S. and other Western countries, is a chronic absence of political leadership. This is because politicians are themselves led by focus groups and their wish-lists.
Leadership, by contrast, means identifying a core issue and dealing with it regardless. That core issue is crystal clear to all with eyes to see.
It is the pincer attack being mounted against this country: the onslaught against its identity, Western values and social fabric from both our nation-hating, amoral intelligentsia and the steady encroachment of radical Islamism.
The people in their millions can see this. They can also see politicians running en masse for cover. Below the surface, the resulting public fury is now at boiling point.
The expenses scam, however deplorable, is a mere sideshow. The real problem lies in the deep disconnection between the political class and cold reality. The prize is waiting for the politician who has the vision and the courage to join up the dots.