Friday, 26 February 2010

In which I declare an interest

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I suddenly realise it is positively perverse that I have not written a word about British politics since May, despite it being the most febrile and fascinating political season since the Old Queen died. And I suddenly realise why. It is that: some of my best friends are Tories.

I KNOW.

Actually, it should not make a blind bit of difference. The two I love the most are serious men of conviction who are far too busy trying to work out thorny policy problems to pay attention to flaky blogs. But you see, I am an unreconstructed old lefty liberal bleeding heart. I think I have been hampered by an absurd subliminal desire not to upset my right of centre buddies.

Luckily, the truth will set you free, and now I have worked out this fabulously stupid reluctance to overturn any applecarts, it is going to be psephology a go-go. Obviously with a bit of dog thrown in. I am not abandoning first principles.

Actually, what I want to talk about is in fact slightly related to dogs. It is what political geeks like me call the dog whistle. Dog whistle politics is a right wing phenomenon which some people say was invented by an Australian called Lynton Crosby, who was the Karl Rove to ex-prime minister John Howard. It was a sinister way for the Right to say hard-line things whilst sounding perfectly reasonable. In the last election, the Tory leader Michal Howard (no relation) used it when he asked: 'Are you thinking what we are thinking?' It had a nasty little taint of John Bull to it, an underlying suggestion that maybe all those pesky foreigners were coming over here and taking the jobs and stealing the women. To its great credit, the good British public took not the blindest bit of notice.

The new Tories have, I think, decided to go back to their One Nation roots, and are now talking about things like social inclusion and co-operatives. They have put the Little Englander dog whistle in a drawer. But the irony is that it is still working against them.

The great puzzle of the last month is why the Conservatives are not miles ahead in the polls. The economy is trashed, unemployment is a joke, the prime minister is being accused of bullying, cussing, briefing against his own chancellor and generally going bonkers. It reminds me of what Evelyn Waugh once said about James Joyce: 'You can hear him going mad, sentence by sentence.' The whole administration seems tired and cranky and out of ideas. Even old Labour loyalists like me look at the debt and look at the war and think: what is the party for? And there are the Tories, all clean and respectable and untainted by power. They don't seem to be scared by women and homosexuals and people who are not Anglo-Saxon any more. Why not give them a go?

And just as I am thinking this perfectly reasonable thing, I turn on the television and there is Ann Widdecombe. (For my international readers: she is of the ship in full sail school of politics; old Tory to her fingertips; religious; Manichean; proud to be a battleaxe.) 'Will you cut the size of the state?' Andrew Neil asks her. Cuts are the absolute battleground at the moment, but the usual thing is to hedge and be diplomatic about it, to talk of how the lovely nurses and teachers and soldiers and policeman must be protected, while the evil quangos must go and ghastly bureaucracy be slashed. But Miss Widdecombe did not get the memo. 'Oh yes,' she says, with indecent glee, in her strange querulous voice. And the dog whistle blows. I think: I can't I can't I can't. In a feverish liberal panic I imagine thousands of poor civil servants begging on the streets. I think: the Conservatives have not changed at all; they still hate and loathe government and we shall all be thrown on the mercy of the free market, which is as ruthless and unpredictable as a gangland killer with a pocket full of razor blades. This is what the whistle does: it flings sensible centrist people like me into a frenzy of hyperbole.

I think this is what is doing the Tories in. The old guard is let out, blinking, into the light and, without meaning to at all, blows the whistle, and everyone runs inside and bolts the doors and contemplates sticking with the devil they know.

The most interesting and least known thing about David Cameron is that his hero is Robert Peel. Peel is my hero too. When I was reading history, all young and foolish and idealistic, I worshipped Peel like other people adored pop stars. He might not have won any charm contests, but he stood up, almost alone, to the howling might of the vested interests when he repealed the egregious Corn Laws in 1846. He put the people before politics. He placed the national interest above loyalty to his own class. He split his party rather than do the wrong thing. There should be parades for him. That's a Tory that all good people can believe in. I think the central question of this election is whether Peel will trump Widdecombe. I admit that no one else in the entire political firmament is asking this question. I admit it might be the wrong question altogether. But it is the one to which I would most like the answer.

Picture of the day is in honour of the great Sir Robert:

Sir Robert Peel by Sir Thomas Lawrence

And his magnificent wife Julia, who he adored:

Julia Peel

Bonus facts about Sir Robert Peel:

As well as repealing the Corn Laws, he also passed the Factory Act, which protected women and children from the worst depredations of ruthless industrialists, emancipated the Catholics, and invented the police force, which is why they are called Bobbies to this day.

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