The most significant bit of Ed Miliband’s speech last week (which I bet you watched in the office, from beginning to end, like I did, because that’s not weird in most jobs at all) was the bit where he called David Cameron an idiot. Did you catch it? Very stirring.
‘Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out-of-touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower?’ he said. As he said it his spine straightened out of that frowning crouch he goes into sometimes, which can make him look as though he’s about to drop a poo on the stage, and he soared up onto his tiptoes. ‘Good on you, Ed Miliband,’ I thought, as the crowd went wild. ‘Bravo.’
It’s not that I agree. I mean, I do, a bit, and naggingly have done ever since the shambles over tuition fees, where they introduced a tax which they called a debt, and then were surprised when people who don’t pay tax, but do have debt, didn’t like it much. Mainly, though, it was that I appreciated the tone of the assault. I don’t mind at all when Tories are called idiots. It makes such a nice change from them being called evil. In ‘Working Class Hero’, John Lennon sang that ‘They hate you if you’re clever, but they despise a fool’. Personally, in keeping with my general watery wetness about almost everything, I can deal with being despised. Perhaps thanks to my concealed raging ego, it merely makes me think people are mistaken, and invigorates me to prove that. But being hated? That keeps me up at night.
Never mind me, though. This is about you lot. Or rather, it’s about the great right-wing body of opinion in this country, which the great left-wing body of opinion hates. It always annoys me, that hate. Indeed, and without wanting to render this all terribly confusing, I despise people for that hate. Hardly anybody is evil. At worst, most people are just wrong. The ‘Tories are evil’ meme might cause a degree of fighty satisfaction among those who joined the Nasty Party because it was the Nasty Party, and today keep wishing it would damn well man up and be nastier. But it’s corrosive. It means that nobody bothers thinking about motive, because of the presumed worship of Beelzebub.
It means the argument that tax cuts promote growth falls on deaf ears (because evil Tories cut taxes to help their evil friends) and the argument that benefit cuts incentivise the jobless does, too (because evil Tories just hate the poor). It turns every sensible policy on its head. No, Michael Gove isn’t sacrificing Britain’s schoolchildren in order to beat up the teaching unions. That’s what an evil person would do. Rather, he wants schools to be better, and couldn’t give a monkey’s toss about teaching unions. He may be wrong (I don’t think he is wrong), but he is not being sly. See also, the NHS. See everything. There is no soaring, state-slashing, everything-privatising agenda, not for its own sake. None of this is a trick.
Tony Blair was good on this, probably because he ended up doing something momentously stupid which ultimately looked quite evil, too. His critics, he said, were incapable of seeing the most nefarious possible motive for anything he wanted to do without assuming it was the only motive. The Tories cannot afford to be in that situation. Plenty of times, yes, they are stupid. Asked to locate his arse, even with an atlas, David Cameron increasingly gives the impression of being a man who would struggle. But free schools are a good idea. NHS outsourcing is a good idea. There are lots of good ideas in there.
You can sell a good idea to somebody who initially thinks it’s a bad idea. But you’ll never sell it to somebody who just thinks it is what you do on your day off from raping kittens. That’s why Ed Miliband calling them a useless shower of dumbarses, or whatever, is such a good thing. Look up top at that quote again. Not a hint of evil in there. It’s a step in the right direction. At last, these people engage.
Poor Lord Carey. Poor Ann Widdecombe Poor all of them. Reading about the Coalition for Marriage event at the Conservative conference this week, I felt a great wave of calm sadness wash over me. They were talking as ever about gay people, and why their being allowed to marry each other would make straight people who are already married somehow less married, or something. And, again as ever, my first instinct had been to bristle. And then it passed, and I felt only… I don’t know. Serene, somehow. Wistful.
What a waste of time. What a load of Sisyphean nonsense, sprouted so very earnestly, but people who don’t realise the argument is over, and they’ve lost it, and even if they hadn’t, theirs would not be the voices worth listening to. It literally doesn’t matter what Carey or Widdecombe think about this, even a little bit. Their frame of reference is shallow and their first principles are flawed. They’re speaking a different language from the people they want to convince, and wondering why it isn’t working. They are guests in a world they used to own, wondering who changed the curtains.
There’s no way that gay marriage won’t happen. And this isn’t even because the arguments for it are so logical (and they are), or the proponents of it are so forceful. It’s just because of the stark, inevitable gravity of societal change. How bleak to be left behind by that. I suppose it happens to everyone eventually. Yeah. Even me.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012