Since the Scottish Borders is not a nationalist stronghold, we don’t often see Alex Salmond in these parts. But the SNP leader was in Melrose recently as the Scottish Government (as his ministry styles itself) held a Cabinet meeting in the town. Such events are dressed up as ‘outreach’ and an ‘opportunity’ to hear from ‘other voices’ but, in reality, are really campaign events. This was followed by a public meeting — part of Salmond’s grand National Conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future — at which, for once, more than 100 people turned up. The First Minister boasted that there had been 40 such events across the country, attended by more than 4,000 people. Many of these constitutional scholars must be SNP activists, one feels. Evidence of the people’s thirst for constitutional change remains elusive. Nonetheless, Salmond presses on, campaigning for an independence referendum next year. This campaign, it must be said, amounts to little more than stirring up indifference across the country. Since all polling evidence suggests that Scotland would vote to retain the Union, Salmond would be wise not to ask the question, lest he be disappointed by the answer he receives. This lends the entire affair an impressive level of fakery. But what else are SNP ministers to do? As a minority government in Edinburgh they are, blessedly, unable to pass much legislation. Hence this constitutional rigmarole: often pointless, but rarely harmful. And how often can one say anything as cheery as that?
Calvin Coolidge, the last truly conservative American president, understood this. ‘The people cannot look to legislation generally for success,’ he warned. ‘Industry, thrift, character are not conferred by act of resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil.’ In fact, Silent Cal has plenty of good advice for David Cameron and George Osborne. ‘While I am exceedingly interested in having tax reduction,’ he said in 1927, ‘it can only be brought about as a result of economy, and therefore it seems to me that [those] that are interested in tax reduction ought to be first of all bending their energies to see that no unwise expenditures are authorised by the government, and that every possible effort is put forth to keep our expenditures down, and pay off our debt, so that we can have tax reduction.’ Coolidge, in fact, reduced the national debt by more than 20 per cent.
Coolidge, the last American president who never flew in an aeroplane, generally ranks poorly on lists of great American presidents, largely because he failed to start a war or to embark upon any recklessly ambitious legislative projects. Indeed, he proposed very little legislation at all, understanding that it is ‘much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones’. You don’t hear this sort of talk in Congress very often these days, but it survives on K Street, home to Washington’s $3.2 billion-a-year lobbying industry. As a friend despairs: ‘This system is so broken. We’re not ever going to be able to get anything done. We haven’t been able to pass any meaningful legislation since the Clean Air Act in 1991.’ To which his boss, a veteran lobbyist, responded wolfishly, ‘That’s the whole point. We’ve done our job if Congress leaves every recess without accomplishing anything.’
The city’s lobbyists should, by rights, be the heroes and villains of the next great Washington novel. If there is one. These days it’s been corrupted by glib political chick lit written by the likes of Al Gore’s daughter Karenna. Even Christopher Buckley’s satires have lost much of their spite. Perhaps reality has trumped fiction and the public feels there’s nothing a novelist can make up that can compete with the reality of life in the Capital of the Free World. The public swallowed the laughably heroic presidency of Jed Bartlet on The West Wing but that was television, where you can get away with make-believe. Books are a different matter. The ‘new journalism’ may also be responsible for the decline of the Washington novel. Accounts of presidential campaigns, such as Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, are written in a deliberately novel-like style. Why create a fictional cast when the real-life drama is so compelling? Even Bob Woodward’s laboured prose tries to make it seem as though the President and his advisers are really characters torn from the pages of a cheap airport thriller.
Neville Cardus was of the view that ‘What we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting, and to enlighten what is incomprehensible, to incarnate things that have no measure, and immortalise what has no duration.’ Perhaps that’s why few political novels enthral. But when you watch Mark Ramprakash bat, you know you’re witnessing something artistic. The idea of Ramprakash returning to the English Test team, after seven years in the wilderness, to hit the runs that win back the Ashes next week is, of course, ripped from the pages of a Boys’ Own story. It would be a romantic, even sentimental chapter and that, say the critics, is an argument against Ramprakash’s selection, not one in its favour. But where would sport be without romance? Besides, the runs Ramprakash has hammered out for Surrey these past five years make their own hard-headed case. Past performance may be no indicator of future gains, but nor are we condemned to see history repeated as tragedy or farce. Ramprakash could fail no worse than the incumbent middle-order, while his success would spark vast quantities of joy. The heart says pick him, but so does the head.
Alex Massie writes at Spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.