How can I go forward when I don't know which way I'm facing? -- John Lennon
I suppose I should say something about the election. I haven't followed it particularly closely. What I've seen has felt like a dark exercise in self-parody. Maybe on Friday morning, I will step out of the shower and find that the last three weeks have been Rory Bremmer sketch and the actual election hasn't started.
I have fantasies of what I might have done if someone had canvassed me.
"Hello. I'm your Conservative Candidate."
"I am amazed you are prepared to show your face in public. Please crawl back into your hole and set a pack of dogs on an asylum seeker, or whatever it is you do. "New" Labour make me angry. I can't be bothered to be angry with you. You are quite literally beneath my contempt."
"Hello. I'm your Liberal Candidate."
"Well, you've got me vote. Don't look so pleased. I couldn't possibly imagine your guy as PM. (Did you see the way he shriveled up on Paxman?) I'm only voting for you because you're what's left after eliminating Big Red Bastard and Little Blue Bastard. Have you thought of changing your name to the "None of the Above" party?"
"Hello. I'm your Labour Candidate."
"Are we going to go through the motions? Where I say "You sold out socialism?" and you say "Yes, but we did re-brand "Job Club" as "the New Deal."? Where I say "Iraq" and you say "I don't think that that is the most important issue facing the electorate? I'm a Guardian-reading metropolitan airy fairly civil liberties supporting elitist. I believe that education for its own sake is the main point of civilisation, as opposed to a dodgy medieval idea. If I'm anything, I'm a socialist. So why don't you just accept that I'm The Enemy and sod off?"
Have you noticed that the political cartoonists are still depicting Michael Howard as Count Dracula? It isn't remotely funny. And it does strike me as a little insensitive to wait until we have a Jew standing for high office and then start making jokes which more or less say that he, er, drinks the blood of infants.
Howard himself started out running rather a good campaign. My first reaction when I saw the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" poster was "That's a very shrewd piece of political advertising. If you are widely regarded as out of date and out of touch, then selling yourself as the party of common sense is a very clever move." (Well, actually that was my second reaction. My first reaction was "I think so, Brain, but where would we get that much chocolate sauce at this time of night?") But then he attempted to reduce the campaign down to five key slogans: Fewer Taxes, Fewer Criminals; Fewer Foreigners; Cleaner Matrons; More Spanking. Regardless of what question he is asked, he reels of this list of five promises.
"Mr Howard, some people would say that you are too old to be Prime Minister."
"I know they do. And let me tell you why we need cleaner hospitals, better school discipline; more police-men...."
Five campaign targets turned out to be too many to keep track of, so, in a very 1984-ish way, the whole Tory campaign got reduced to a single over-arching political doctrine: "Tony Blair is a liar."
Saying "Tony Blair is a liar" had the advantage over the other slogans of being pretty obviously true. And, uniquely for a Tory poster, it makes loony-left peaceniks like myself nod in approval ("If he lied to lead us into a war, he'll lie to win an election.") The effect is rather spoiled by the fact that Howard supported the War against Iraq, and says that he would have done so even had known then everything that he knows now. So: you can't trust Tony because he got us involved in a stupid, expensive, un-necessary, illegal war and lied about it; whereas we would have got you involved in a stupid, un-necessary, illegal war, but we would have told the truth about it. Not the most scintillating message I have ever heard.
You'd have thought that someone would have spotted posters which appeared to have been written by hand were just asking to be scrawled on? The first time I saw the poster which says "It's not racist to want to limit immigration", a helpful graffiti artist had added "Of course it is you ****ing twat" in a similar handwriting. Not subtle, but...
By the way: it's not racist to want to limit immigration. No-one ever said it was. When Michael says he supports "controlled immigration", he's cleverly suggesting that Labour think that there shouldn't be any such controls, which is pretty obviously not true. (Similarly, when he asks "What's wrong with there being some discipline in schools?" he is implying that Labour positively opposes the idea of kids behaving themselves, which is nonsense.) Most racists want to limit immigration, but not all those who want to limit immigration are racists. But Howard's real triumph is that he has succeeded in giving the word "immigration" a negative aura. Just before parliament broke up, he did a knock-about routine in which he listed all the bad things which Tony had done. "Crime – up. School truancy – up. Tax – up. Immigration – up." Once "immigration" has come to mean "bad thing" it is very hard to have a rational discussion about it. If Howard says "Under Labour, the amount of Bad Thing has increased" it's next to impossible for Tony to say "Yes, and Bad Thing is a good!" Instead, he finds himself saying "No, actually, there was less Bad Thing, and if you elect us again, there will be even less!" (A long time ago, probably during John Major's infamous "Labour Tax Bombshell" campaign, Labour accepted the principle that Income Tax was a Bad Thing, and kept assuring us that they had no intention of increasing the amount of this Bad Thing. Once you've accepted this, then it's bye-bye to silly ideas like socialism.)
I blame the journalists for the nightmarish quality of the election campaign. Jon Snow, John Humphreys, the Dimbleby brothers and Darth Paxman all got to do interviews with Michael, Tony and The Other One. In fact, they all got to do exactly the same interview.
What do you think goes on in their little heads before facing the Big Man on live TV? "I know. I'll ask Tony whether he deceived parliament about the reasons for war in Iraq. That's the last thing he'll expect. So maybe I'll catch him off guard, and he'll blurt out the truth ("Of course, I knew that the whole WMD thing was a pack of lies. George told me that if I pretended to believe it, he'd let David Blunkett have a consignment of second hand electric chairs. Gosh, it feels good to have got that off my chest.")
You'd think that one of them could have thought of a slightly off-the-wall question which would get him off his pre-written script and force him to say something slightly interesting.
"Mr Blair, Mr Howard. Supposing you knew that you were going to be in power for another 20 years, what would Britian look like at the end of it?"
"Mr Blair, given that George Bush is a pro-gun pro-hanging anti-abortion anti-gay religious fundamentalist – pretty much the incarnation of every liberals worst nightmare -- what goes through your mind when you shake hands with him? Did you vomit the first time?"
"Mr Howard, what finally convinced you to stop advocating capital punishment?".
In fact, of course, they all ask him the same questions and he responds with the same answers in precisely the same words, and we all start to wonder whether we can actually be bothered to vote for any of them.
"I have an idea, boys and girls. Let's split the audience down the middle, and when Mr Dimbleby says "Mr Blair, are you a fibber" we'll all join in the chorus and see who can shout it the loudest. Let's have a practice: all together now....
I don't dis-respect
those who take a different view
but I became Prime Minister
in order to make difficult decisions
and I happen to think
that the decision I took was the right one
and the attorney general was there in the room
he was there in the room
he was there in the room
he was there in the room
(one last time, let's try to raise the roof:)
he was there in the room"
The Tories say "vote for us, because you can't trust Tony."
The Liberals say "Vote for us, because we actually opposed the war, and have got some nice policies and a very good chance of coming third."
Labour says "Even if you agree with the Liberals, you mustn't vote for them because then the Conservatives might get in."
The main reason for supporting Michael Howard is that Tony Blair is so awful; and the main reason for supporting Tony Blair is that Michael Howard is so awful, so awful, in fact that we mustn't vote Lib Dem even if agree with them.
I would find a Michael Howard government aesthetically displeasing. But I do not accept the theory that a Conservative government would be the Worst Thing Possible. It could hardly come up with Home Secretary more right wing that Blunkett, for example. The "anything but Howard" theory amounts to a blank cheque that excuses all Labour misbehavior. We can do what we like, because the opposition is so dreadful. Vote for the party you hate, because otherwise the party you hate slightly more might get in. That's democracy, folks.
Tony made one rather clever rhetorical breakthrough during the campaign. When asked about Iraq, he effected to be irritated with the issue; to say that it was irrelevant; that it was in the past; that "people really cared" about hospitals, crime, police... As a result of this tactic, it becomes hard to say "To me, the war is the decisive issue" or "It comes down to a question of trust" without appearing to to be repeating a dreadfully hackneyed cliches.
To me, the war is the decisive issue. It comes down to a question of trust.
Howard spoilt things slightly by shouting "liar" a bit too loudly. This enabled Blair to hide behind mock outrage. It was also a mistake to lean so heavily on the dozen or so memos that leaked out in the week before the election. Only a complete political geek can understand them. Did this lawyer change that piece of advice from "maybe" to "probably" before or after this resolution? I, for one, am entirely lost.
What bothers me more is the way in which Blair's reasons for going to war keep shifting. Before the war, it was, as we all know, about weapons of mass destruction: But when it turned out that there had never been any such weapons, Tony, in effect, said "Did I say weapons of mass destruction? Oh. Sorry. What I meant was that Saddam was a wicked dictator, and it was right to liberate his people from him." But during the election, it has changed again, presumably because one of the memos specifically said that a war for "regime change" would have been illegal. So now, it's all about the War on Terror. After September 11th, Tony decided that there were lots of really bad terrorists in the world, and it was tactically necessary to "deal with" all countries that had nuclear-bioligcal-and-chemical-weapons. Saddam happened to be first on the list. In this version, "regime change" was merely a means to an end, the end being removing the weapons which didn't exist but might have done. Liberating the poor suffering Iraqis was simply a pleasant side-effect.
This confirms what everyone who isn't a New Labour partisan believes: Blair decided very early on that he wanted to go to war against Saddam, and started looking for reasons that could justify it. I used to think that the true reason he wanted the war was in order to suck up to the biggest kid in the playground: he would sooner be a junior ally of America than an equal partner in Europe. But his new "September 11th" version of events has a ring of truth to it. It's the way someone with messiah complex might actually think. ("I decided to remove Saddam". By myself. Cabinet? Americans? Generals?) But the reasons given at the time – legal, tactical, moral, intelligence-based – were only pretexts to give support to a course of action he had already decided on. Is this the same as "lying to get us into a war"?
"I am not lost: I just haven't pin-pointed my precise location on the map yet." "I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman."
I think that the fact that Tony led the country into a war without being entirely honest about the true reasons – yes, that's a good way of putting it – is itself, grounds for not voting for him, ever, ever again. Blair says that if I do this I might let Howard in. I don't for one moment believe this to be true. But even if I did, the fact would remain that honour demands that any politician who had been less than 100% honest about a war should be punished by the electorate at the next opportunity. If five years of Howard is the price for that, then we should grit out teeth and put up with it. Perhaps, in opposition, New Labour would evaporate and re-form as something more recognisable as a socialist party. Wouldn't that make the 2009 election more interesting?