Alex Massie

The dreadful state of British politics

Text settings

Conference season always shows our political parties at their worst. It would be a kindness if these things were not televised. These dungeons cannot withstand the intrusion of too much daylight. On the other hand, some things are evident. Chiefly, it is now beyond clear that Brexit has broken both parties. More than that, it has overwhelmed a hopelessly overmatched political class that plainly lacks the ability to make sense of the Brexit fiasco and, just as pertinently, the courage to look reality in the face.

This government - this hopeless government, I should say - is kept alive by only one thing: the impossibility of the opposition. In turn, this opposition is given hope by only one thing: the clattering uselessness of this government. A movable force meets a stoppable object and neither, remarkably, can defeat the other. This is the true state of Britain today: Theresa May cannot put Jeremy Corbyn away and Jeremy Corbyn cannot even defeat Theresa May.

The parade of grotesques at this week’s Labour conference will be matched by the ghastlies on full display when the Tories gather in Birmingham next week. In both instances, our two main parties operate on the presumption the electorate must be made up of fools.

The Tories’ Brexit wars are well-documented; the governing party’s inability to agree on a preferred course of action is crippling. But at least there is, if you will, a measure of innocent blundering here. Not so with Labour whose cynicism would be breathtaking if it were not so transparent. John McDonnell confirms what we all know; the Labour leadership supports Brexit. The very next day up-pops Keir Starmer to say that actually, a second referendum in which rejoining the EU is on the ballot remains possible. Well, it is not difficult to ascertain which is the real Labour position and which is just for show.

'Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake' chirp Labour’s goons, oblivious to the manner in which at least some voters might think this mistake involves them being held hostage by the government. Labour’s view is clear: there will be no rescue mission and you are expendable. If matters must get much worse before then can get better then so be it. We have not yet reached the crisis point at which a Labour government - even one led by this crew - will seem the last, least bad, option available. Desperation, after all, is the mother of revolution. Or, as McDonnell put it, 'The greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be. The greater the need for change, the greater the opportunity we have to make that change.' Your misery, if such you consider it, is Labour’s opportunity.

Oppose a Brexit re-run by all means but it ought to be possible to do so openly and with some measure of candour. Instead we endure this nod-and-a-wink cynicism. And since politics is at least in part the expression of a certain style, the manner in which Labour approaches this question seems likely to indicate the manner in which this Labour party would govern were it ever given the chance to do so. These shenanigans, then, are revealing. In like fashion, the Labour leadership’s admiration for the Venezuelan economic model (sic) is a non-trivial indication of where the party’s true instincts lie.

It is no great exaggeration to say that the Corbyn-McDonnell axis is less interested in redistributing wealth than destroying it. That will, if nothing else, make for an interesting experiment. It is easy to divine the problems afflicting the British economy - not all of them by any means Brexit-related - but Labour’s solutions would be the same regardless of the situation they inherited were they to gain power. It is a question of ideology, not practicality.

But then the current iteration of the Conservative party is ill-placed to preach or cast aspersions on these grounds. It too has abandoned its traditions, substituting radicalism for prudence and ideology for pragmatism. Brexit is the Conservative’s really big adventure and not one that, at present, seems likely to end well.

Next week’s Tory conference will offer a picture of a government that deserves to be put out of its misery just as surely as Labour’s conference this week reveals a party that must be kept in opposition. But if the Tories sacrifice Toryism who are they to complain if Labour chooses to abandon social democracy? Actions spawn reactions and this Conservative party encourages Labour to do their worst, knowing that many voters will wonder how much worse that can really be. ('Plenty' is the astonishing answer.)

In this respect, you might go so far as to say this Conservative party deserves this Labour party and vice versa. The country, on the other hand, both deserves better and, on the evidence of recent months, has precisely zero chance of getting what it deserves. The state of this, indeed.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyuk politics