by Peter Hennessy in THE TABLET, 4 December 2019
Are we living through the most heavily freighted general election of modern times? Brexit alone would make it so. But merely to list some of the other questions in play tells a significant story.
In the United Kingdom we are deeply familiar with Left/Right politics. It is the great staple of our national debate and routinely freckled with matters of class, status, life chances and equality that accompany it. But the chasm between the Corbyn and the Johnson models of political economy is truly vast. The familiar voters’ refrain that “they are all the same” will not resonate this time.
However the centrifugal effect of the European question is so powerful that the traditional Left/Right party structure is cracking under the stress testing. Big figures from the past such as Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine plainly cannot bear what their parties have become.
As I write, the Liberal Democrats have yet to harvest the bounty of this with, one would have thought, the centre ground there for the seizing by Jo Swinson. The politics of the Union is playing powerfully as expected. This election is tailor-made for the Scottish National Party and Nicola Sturgeon has been by far the most impressive performer so far in the leaders’ debates.
The most unexpected question to flare up in these set-tos has been the fitness for purpose of the monarchy – the stuff of nightmares for Buckingham Palace whose occupant-in-chief may need to be at her most-apolitical best if an exhausted electorate produces another hung parliament. The breathtaking insensitivity and crassness of Prince Andrew’s interview on his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein – which triggered that question to Johnson and Corbyn – simply could not have been foreseen in a rational world.
Another singularity of this election is the intervention of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in his Times column on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and Mr Corbyn’s fitness for office. And there is every possibility that another unanticipated parcel of freight will be added to the electoral train before you read these words, let alone mark your ballot paper.
Standing back for a moment, is there one sound that will endure from the cacophony? There is and I heard it on a night when I was suffering from a bad dose of electoral palate fatigue. Oscar Wilde once declared: “The trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” The same could be said of general elections.
It was the night of the ITV leaders’ debate, which I had dreaded watching because, I thought, it would bring home just what a meagre-gruel of a choice we are facing for the occupancy of No. 10. But, suddenly, there it was, rippling through the Salford studio audience, the sound of this election campaign – a peal of ironic laughter when Boris Johnson, questioned about trust, claimed to be a believer in telling the truth.
Not only will that clip be played and replayed in every Johnson television documentary to come, the wider question of trust in our political class and our political institutions will run through our national conversations in the early 2020s, whether they turn out to be the Johnson years or (less likely in my judgement) the Corbyn era.
Somehow we have to discover a way of becoming a self-raising nation with a set of politicians to match who look back to this age of recrimination as a textbook example of how not to operate a political society in a country relearning how to get on with itself and with the world, once more.
Peter Hennessy is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London and an independent crossbench peer. His book Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties was published in October by Allen Lane, £30 (Tablet bookshop price, £27).