We are all drama queens, really, we political hacks; and so we were all thoroughly delighted by Theresa May’s Tuesday coup. I have long been arguing that we would have an election this year, and I had been beginning to feel lonely. But one big thing I got wrong: it had seemed to me in January that a Brexit election would shatter much party discipline, since the voters would be principally interested in where candidates stood on the Great Issue and both Tories and Labour were deeply divided about it. However, by framing the current contest in the way she has, May has deftly but brutally carved away the long and substantial tradition of Tory pro-EU politics. In this election, to be Tory is to support her uncompromising version of Brexit. Where does that leave the Conservatism of Ken Clarke, Heseltine, Soubry? All right, granted, it wasn’t in jumpingly vigorous condition before; but it’s now gone decidedly Norwegian Blue.I am hearing rumours of a centrist plot to target Brexiteer candidates in pro-Remain constituencies; but how this version of ‘decapitation politics’ differs from another push by the Liberal Democrats is rather less clear. For broadcasters, the usual rules on being evenhanded could become ferociously complicated. If it is, as the Prime Minister says, our ‘Brexit election’ then you’d think we should give each side of that huge argument a fair crack of the whip. But if that looks like giving the Lib Dems and the SNP more airtime than their current parliamentary strength warrants, then both Labour and the Tories would strongly protest. Stopwatches will be brandished. For the next couple of months, life as a print journalist will seem a lot, lot easier.
I have been pondering what ‘luxury’ really means in this day and age. Each Easter, the (impressively large) extended Marr clan gathers at Crieff Hydro hotel in Strathearn in central Scotland to take long walks, gossip, play a little golf and consume very many mutton and steak pies. Crieff dates back to 1868 when it was founded as part of the fashionable Victorian hydropathic movement, and it always had an austerely Presbyterian atmosphere — in the old days there were penny fines for missing grace at a meal, and the place was staunchly teetotal. It still offers special deals to Church of Scotland ministers in the out-of-season period, though it is no more teetotal than anywhere else in central Scotland. But it feels stunningly luxurious — not because of particularly lavish food or anything obvious — but because of air so fresh it’s like a drug; and long tracts of woodland and heathery hill silent except for birdsong, and the noise of the river Earn. Lots of families go there for the activities a modern ‘luxury resort’ is expected to provide — archery, horse-riding, tennis, swimming. But the most striking thing about the atmosphere is that the whole place is outdoors and entirely unelectronic. For a Londoner, the absence of beeps and screens is almost eerie. For me, lungfuls of chill, dew-fresh air, and the sound of a stonechat, and banks of wood anemones, are worth more than posh wines or rich food, or a crammed flight to some baking tourist resort.
Yet these days, ‘luxury’ is simply a product we don’t need that somebody is determined to sell us, so that we can swank in front of people we’ve never met. I have been reading a new book by the economist Kate Raworth, which asks some simple and pertinent questions. Why do we tax employment, through payroll taxes, but not the use of such scarce resources as fresh water, the Earth’s minerals, wood and soil? Her biggest question, however, is one that terrifies all mainstream economists: is ‘growth’ endless? There is nothing in nature which grows for ever, and the limits of industrial expansion on this planet are approaching. So what is the political offer when that optimistically priapic upward growth curve finally wilts? Do we get an angrier politics, focused on residual unfairness and identity? Thinking about the real incomes of many Americans and Europeans, and the effect of that on our politics, I wonder whether this isn’t happening already.
My most exciting Easter moment was sitting almost in the orchestra for a St Matthew Passion at King’s College chapel, Cambridge. I was no more than a couple of arms’ lengths away from the soloists — a soaring countertenor, a grindingly powerful bass and everything in between. We think these days of Lutheran Christianity as a rather sober-sided, dark-suited form of spirituality. But Bach, composing almost in Luther’s shadow, reminds us just how emotional and passionate it really was.
One last modest political prediction: someone will now compile a huge register of all candidates, putting them on a soft vs hard Brexit spectrum. And it will be highly influential. Anyway, on with the show: not a lot of fresh air or birdsong for me, I suspect, this spring.