A Tale of two cities

A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The opening lines of Dickens great book about London and Paris in the French Revolution, seem peculiarly appropriate this morning, as Theresa May drags her battered authority to meet newly triumphant President Emanuel Macron in a desperate bid to show that, despite her self-inflicted defeat, it is still “business as usual” in the Downing Street bunker.

Compare and contrast.

In Paris the mood is everywhere of renewal. In London the stale smell of stagnation and paralysis hangs over Whitehall and Westminster. President Macron, with his new majority in parliament is now in total command of what happens in his country. Mrs May is more the prisoner of her Government than its triumphant leader. He has a modern, European, globalist forward-looking vision which has set France on fire. She has ridden to disaster on a closed, isolationist, right wing tide in our country, which she now does not have the authority to control. He has beaten the nationalist right wing forces back into their heartlands. She has been forced to incorporate them into her Government. He has united France behind a movement for radical change built around the moderate voices of the nation. She has tragically and deliberately divided our country from the moment she became Prime Minster and forced us to a general election which has produced an outcome so polarised  between the political extremes, that the moderate progressive voice of Britain has been crushed into silence. He has a wide selection of young, professional new comers to choose his Government from. She can only choose from the narrow pool of those stale talents who share responsibility with her for the disaster in which they have landed our country – she must even submit to bringing back a bitter enemy like Michael Gove, who she threw out only nine months ago. She depends on a Parliament which is dominated by the old failed Parties of the past, he has one which has pushed aside the worn out and exhausted structures of France for something more in tune with the modern internet age. He is head one of the two nations which now steer the European Union, whose economic growth is now running faster than the US. She is a poor friendless supplicant at the gates, in charge of an economy dominated by the dark clouds of piled up debt and stagnant productivity.

None of this is to say that the Macron enterprise will work. Maybe today will turn out to be “never again glad confident morn”, to misquote Robert Browning on the failure of another Liberal giant. But after three terrifying years in which the politics of “peoples movements” have brought forth the misshapen, the ugly, the divisive and the preposterous, is it not refreshing that we now have proof they can produce something positive and hopeful too? If, as I think true, the peoples of the advanced Western democracies are aching to sweep away the old failed structures of our politics, is it not inspiring that this can be done in favour of a change which reaches out to decency and the realities of our internationalist future, rather than back to isolationism and the dark forces of division?

That our election failed on all counts to help our country out of its current mess, is now obvious. That it has ended up by polarising us between a proto-UKIP Tory party and an neo-socialist Labour Party, both of whom have abandoned any pretence to appeal to their centrist traditions, is unquestionable. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election – that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics, the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost, now lies largely empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.

So how can we replicate what Macron has done in France?

Not easily, I fear.

No single person amongst those elected last Thursday has yet the stature – or perhaps the courage – of Emanuel Macron. It is a terrible indictment of our politics that the most powerful figureheads of the progressive centre our country needs so badly have either, like David Miliband chosen for the moment to pursue their careers elsewhere, or like Nick Clegg, been rewarded for a lifetime of putting country before party, by being kicked out at the ballot box. I do not think that we can replicate an SDP type, Macron coup de theatre in Britain. Nor do I support, except as an occasional sideshow, the so-called “Progressive Alliance” which depends more on mathematics, than principle and ideas. I believe in partnership politics. But partnerships for something constructive which we want, not just opportunistic alliances against something we hate.

Nor is it, I believe, reasonable in these turbulent times to expect any but the very bravest to leave their tribe and join another.


We probably need something which looks more like a process, than an event. Would it really impossible, for instance for politicians of the progressive centre from all parties and none, to get together and pledge to work across party divides, so as to prosecute and protect say five or six principles which we believe essential to our country as it passes through these dangerous convulsions.

I am an impatient man. I would like to move faster. Time is short for a British en marche, with another election potentially round the corner. But getting started with the possible, is probably more useful at this moment, than wasting time puzzling about perfection. Mao Tse Tung was once asked by a follower why, since his Long March was a thousand miles, they had to start that afternoon? He replied, that because it was a thousand miles, they had to start that afternoon.


Where are we after surprise Thursday?

Politics after the 2017 Election.

Saturday 10 June

Some things are clear as the smoke begins to drift way after the election – more can be sensed as dim shapes in the murk which, for the moment, remain more hinted at than certain.

Here is what can solidly be said

  1. This was the most unusual and unpredictable election of our time.
  2. That may indicate that last Thursday presages a real change to the structures and habits which have dominated our elections for the last 30 years.
  3. Most pundits claim that politics has reverted to the old two party system of the immediate post-war period. Others (me amongst them) disagree. Though the results have a retro look about them, there is no evidence that Britain below the surface has returned to the bi-polar politics of our fathers and grandfathers. The multiplicity of opinions, aspirations, wishes, ambitions and world views which are so much a function of this pluralistic internet age, remain today as much a feature of life in Britain as they are in any other Western democracy.
  4. The election results were binary, not because Britain has suddenly become binary, but because of the peculiar overlay of the Brexit in-out choice and the failure of those who represent the now voiceless centre in politics to reach out beyond their huddled tribes with a proposition capable of motivating the moderate voices in Britain in the way that Jeremy Corbin did for his neo-socialism.
  5. Mrs May was widely praised before the election for miraculously healing the chasm everyone which knows lies at the heart the Tory party. But British elections have an extraordinary habit of finding out our leaders’ flaws and weaknesses. In what will go down as the most catastrophic election campaign in history for a ruling Party, our Prime Minister for all her virtues of straight-forwardness and patriotism, was revealed, not as the re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, but as brittle, bad tempered, tunnel visioned and extraordinarily insensitive to her own deficiencies and the limits of her power.
  6. Nothing better illustrates these personal faults more than her decision yesterday to try to hang on to power when her continuation in Downing Street is now, not, as she preposterously claims, the means to see us through this crisis, but the greatest single road block to that happening. As the largest party, the Conservatives’ right to form the next Government is clearly established under the practices of our Constitution (our essential sheet-anchor in stormy times such as these). But the Tories go beyond the sensible limits of those rights if they think they can propose to our Parliament (or should suggest to our Queen) a legitimate Government headed by a Prime Minster who has now, not a shred of democratic legitimacy left.
  7. Mrs May has done her country, her Party, and herself no favours by trying to hang on. On the surface this appears to be an act which combines wilfulness, irrationality and the fact that she and the small cabal around her have completely lost touch. But is there another explanation for her seemingly perplexing and self-damaging behaviour? Could her Cabinet colleagues, perhaps headed by the ambitious Philip Hammond, have persuaded her that, since a Party election for yet another PM unelected by the country, would be damaging, divisive and destabilising, she must hang until they find someone by acclamation to  crown seamlessly in her place (Mr Hammond himself perhaps)?
  8. One thing however is beyond speculation. The yawning divisions in the Tory party are now laid bare. The humiliation (and danger) of begging for support from the DUP will go unnoticed and unfelt by the hard-right, hard-Brexiteers who now dominate the Mrs May’s proto-UKIP Tory Party. For them the DUP are soul-mates in policy, attitude and world view; they are welcome re-enforcements to the right wing cause – and perhaps even to an historical return to the good old days of the Conservative and Unionist Party (did you notice Mrs May used just this phrase yesterday?).
  9. But for the left of the Tory Party (as also for all who recognise the dangers to the Northern Ireland peace process), playing hard-line Ulster unionism into our already highly volatile post election political crisis, will be total anathema. Many of us have long speculated that, what Robert Peel called the “battle for the soul” which split the Tories over the Corn Laws 200 years ago, is being replicated by the issue of Europe today. We are about to discover if this is so, as Tory leaders try desperately to stop the blood letting from the wounds laid bare by Mrs May’s leadership and the pressures of a Tory/DUP partnership in a hung Parliament. Ruth Davidson the heroine leader of the Scottish Conservatives and Anna Soubry the narrowly elected Tory MP for Broxtowe appear as harbingers for this.
  10. It is not in any way to diminish Mr Corbyn’s remarkable successes in this election campaign (and before) to warn that, nevertheless for Labour, these results flattered to deceive. Many of us have been warning for two or more years that Jeremy Corbyn (like Bernie Sanders in the US) would have much wider traction than most of the tabloids and all the  Tories hoped. He has an attractive, straightforward and decent personality which has been re-enforced an appealingly under-stated public style (in sharp contrast to Mrs May). The Corbin team fought a campaign which showed real mastery of the arts of mobilisation and sectoral politics, especially when it came to using social media and targeting the youth vote.
  11. One thing will not be the same again in future elections. Political Parties will never again ignore the young vote or treat them with complacency. This is Mr Corbyn’s permanent legacy and it is a proud one.
  12. Nevertheless and withall, the hard fact is that even at the top of their game and despite the manifest and many targets presented to them by Mrs May and the Tories these last seven years, Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party still could not win – or even get close to winning. This is not a definitive verdict – and does not necessarily mean they cannot win in the future. It is only to observe that, despite all Labour’s successes in the last five weeks, there is no evidence yet that with these policies and these people, Labour can carry the wider country in the future. Indeed there is much evidence that they cannot. This presents moderate Labour MPs with a difficult dilemma. Do they, like Chukka Ummuna, gulp down as much humiliating crow as necessary to re-ingratiate themselves with those they have excoriated, in order to secure a front bench position in a Party which, all rational argument says, will never have power. Or do they, like Chris Lesley tell the truth that Labour is still far away from power and likely to remain so, unless and until it can make a wider appeal to the centre ground.

Conclusion? This election has plunged our country into a crisis no-one saw coming. Finding a way through is going to prove very difficult, especially given the deep polarisation of our politics, which, despite the ballot box results, still imposes a binary choice on a nation which remains at its heart deeply pluralist, multi-layered and multi-faceted. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election – that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics, the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost, now lies empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.