Enough of all these vital, apocalyptic, existential elections. They don’t half wear you out. The Scottish referendum was vital and apocalyptic, so they said, because the wrong decision would have seen Britain crack like a plate, and Scotland spiral off into insane debt, and residual Britain fade in geopolitical importance. Or, on other side, Tory rule for a millennium, which no Scot could ever want. Hmmm. Then the 2015 election was vital and apocalyptic, too, because Ed Miliband… Ed Miliband…
Hang on. What was the big problem with Ed Miliband? There definitely was one. Ah yes, his dad hated Britain. Also he was incompetent. Didn’t even know how many kitchens he had. Couldn’t eat a sandwich. Or hold a banana. Unless that was somebody else. Still, everybody knew he couldn’t possibly be PM because Britain’s international reputation would take a battering, because we’d abruptly be regarded as flaky and mad. So thank God we avoided all that, eh?
Then the Brexit referendum was also apocalyptic. If we left, some said, the economy would tank, the pound would plummet, the Prime Minister would resign, the deficit would widen, and the Europeans would hate us. Ha! The fools! Imagine believing that! Whereas if we didn’t, remember, it was going to be wall-to-wall Turks. They were going to be everywhere. In your schools, in your house. Probably in your fridge. Turks in your fridge! Horrifying. It was your last chance to save Britain. Man, it was fraught.
Then there was Trump versus Clinton, which wasn’t ours, but was still a contest between two people who each presented themselves as the last chance to save America from the final, unstoppable, runaway-train horror of each other. Then Macron versus Le Pen, which was the same.
Now we have May versus Corbyn. With May saying, basically, ‘Listen! Listen! For God’s sake you have to vote for me, otherwise Brexit will be a disaster! You think that beardy jam-making old loon can handle it? No! The monsters are coming, and only I can keep you safe!’ Or thereabouts. And squaring up against her is the beardy, jam-making old loon himself. And you know the interesting thing about him? The one, true, admirable, startling, frankly heartening thing? He isn’t saying anything similar in return. Unlike almost every other major election participant in recent memory, he is giving Project Fear a miss.
‘Yes!’ his supporters might cry, if they were reading this, which they probably won’t be. ‘At last you see why we love him!’ To which I would reply, if you’ll forgive me, ‘bollocks’. Because this is not why they love him. While he might be giving Project Fear a miss, personally, they most certainly are not. They’re the worst. For them, another Tory government would indeed be an apocalypse. Those disgusting Tories, Corbynites will tell you, want to destroy the NHS. They want to privatise it, sell it off to their mates, kill your kids. Probably it’s a conspiracy of some sort. Likewise with schools. Those Tory education cuts? Terrifying! Be afraid! Say goodbye to books and pencils; in a year your child will be writing on dried scraps of skin with their own bloodied fingernails. Unless you vote Labour. Be afraid.
Whereas Corbyn himself? He just… doesn’t do this. He says what Labour claims to want to do, and he more or less leaves it at that. He is the least attack-dog party leader I can ever remember. If he thinks Conservative policies are awful, terrifying, apocalyptic, he keeps it to himself. He just confines himself to saying he thinks his own would be rather better. It’s plausible, of course, that he simply can’t remember what Conservative policies are. Even remembering his own sometimes seems a stretch. Hearing him interviewed on Woman’s Hour on Tuesday, when Emma Barnett asked him how much Labour childcare proposals were going to cost and he didn’t know, and she said on air, ‘You’re holding your manifesto, you’re flicking through it, you’ve got an iPad there’ did, admittedly, suggest alternative reasons why he isn’t readily trotting out focus-grouped attack lines. Still, he has been an unexpectedly benign figure throughout this campaign, rather than a more grumpy and weird one, and it suits him well.
In other respects, Corbyn’s campaign has been quite shamelessly dishonest. He did support the IRA. If he was to be truthful now, at the very least, he would have to explain that he once thought peace in Ireland could only come with an IRA victory, and he now sees that he was terribly wrong. Likewise, in the past, when he has opposed foreign interventions or terrorism legislation, it is simply untrue to say that he has done this because he thought these things would make us less safe at home. Actually, and in a manner well-documented, he thought these things were morally wrong, and opposed them irrespective of whether they made us safer or not. He has posed as a leftish-centrist, affecting genial bafflement when people put him on the hard left. Yet he’s the one who spent 13 years rebelling against a leftish-centrist Labour government whenever he could.
When it comes to his approach to his opponents, however, whatever the reason for it, his lack of hyperbole is downright refreshing. Most cross-party bickering is hyperbolic nonsense, and most people know it. By ritual, politicians routinely declare that their opponents would be disastrous for Britain, whereas what they really mean is that they would be suboptimal at worst. As a general rule, the apocalypse isn’t going to happen. Corbyn is a poor party leader, and I suspect he’d be a far worse prime minister. Right now, though, he may also be the least shrill person in politics. Well done him.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
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