A fortnight ago I arrived in Britain, to speak at the annual Battle of Ideas festival. Think Festival of Dangerous Ideas, but with genuinely free speech and welcoming opinions from both right and left. It was humbling to be on the same bill as luminaries like Brendan O’Neill, former Tory and Ukip MP Douglas Carswell and Speccie Oz’s own former editor, Tom Switzer. The organiser, Claire Fox, wanted an all-in ideas brawl, and she got it.
I had two speaking gigs, including on whether we have a ‘cotton-wool’ state. Many Poms think their nanny state is pervasive: disbelief filled the room when I said Australia outdoes them in nanniness. The panel, let alone the audience, were amazed that Aussies are forced to wear bike helmets wherever they ride, and can’t improve their health by trading vaping for smoking. They were much bemused when I quoted an Australian public health figure’s earnest list of 150 ways the nanny state has been good for us. Only 150? We mustn’t be trying hard enough.
It’s a shame Australia doesn’t have its own Battle of Ideas. Instead, we have the likes of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and the Australian Writers’ Festival, where voices from the centre, let alone the right, are only invited to be thrown to the luvvie literary lions. If, that is, they’re invited at all.
While in London, I caught up with two fellow contributors to the influential Conservative Home website edited by former Tory MP Paul Goodman: brilliant Commons sketch-writer Andrew Gimson, and writer, publisher and broadcaster Iain Dale. Both generously shared insider thoughts with me about the Westminster scene after Theresa May turned an expected whopping election win over unreconstructed Marxist Jeremy Corbyn into June’s near defeat. Both were astounded at Australia now finding herself without an effective government and parliament as dual citizen MPs and senators drop like flies. Westminster couldn’t get like that, could it?
It could. ‘Pestminster’ broke just days later, when a spreadsheet kept by Tory staffers of MPs behaving badly was leaked and did the impossible: totally blasted Brexit off the news pages. Just like Canberra staffers, UK parliamentary advisers and researchers swap notes on who shags whom, which MPs are good to work with and who are shits. But whatever the motive for leaking it, none could imagine the cloudburst of self-righteous outrage in the age of #metoo.
One cabinet minister, Michael Fallon, resigned after it was revealed he squeezed a female journalist’s knee fifteen years ago. Reportedly, he also was accused by a Cabinet colleague, Andrea Leadsom, of making suggestive comments to her, which may well have been clumsy blokey banter. But after Leadsom shopped him to the PM, Fallon fell. In the feeding frenzy that followed, MP after MP – Labour and Scottish Nationalist as well as Tory – was denounced for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour – a catch-all term if ever there was one. Frontbenchers have resigned, and male MPs suspended by their parties pending formal investigations. The biggest of them all is deputy Prime Minister Damien Green, May’s chief supporter, who’s battling to keep his job as old allegations are dredged up and new ones made in broadsheet newspapers, let alone the tabloids. The only thing missing in this frenzied witch hunt is the presumption of innocence.
Theresa May’s inability to govern since her June electoral disaster already was bad enough. Now British politics is being strangled by confected moral outrage. The bed-hopping Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, wouldn’t last a second today, let alone David ‘The Goat’ Lloyd George. But when it comes to middle-aged white male politicians behaving badly, the priapic JFK’s memorial remains at Runnymede – for now.
It’s indeed right to treat colleagues and staff with respect, whether male or female. Workplace bullying and harassment are abhorrent. Personal power over others shouldn’t be abused. Hands – of either sex – shouldn’t wander. But as Charles Moore wrote in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, traditional male-dominated political culture is being upended by ambitious women (and their media supporters) sensing their time has come. As we’ve already found in Australia since Julia Gillard’s infamous misogyny speech, middle-aged white politicians standing in the sisterhood’s way must be emasculated and eliminated, while any criticism of women politicians’ competence is denounced as sexist. Power without commensurate responsibility is what’s wanted by the new feminist political elite – and they’re getting away with it.
Sadly, one suspended politician, a Labour minister in the Welsh assembly, took his own life last week. A gotcha game for a slavering media, with allegations largely taken as given until proven otherwise, became a human tragedy. Wilfully throwing or exploiting grave but unproven, or unprovable, allegations is as abhorrent as what is being alleged: any witch-hunters and political opportunists wanting to emulate Pestminster in Canberra should think long and hard before reaching for the mud bucket.
Work done, I played tourist with my wife, who’d never been to the UK before. We were especially entranced by the spectacular natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands, and made a special pilgrimage to her ancestral region, remote Caithness. My wife’s McDonald family has been in Australia for 170 years, and it dawned on us that the cruel Highland Clearances of the early 19th century drove her ancestors to emigrate and seek out for themselves a better life here on the far side of the world. Scotland’s loss was Australia’s (and my) great gain.