Our political system, for all its imperfections, remains precious
As we go to press, with the campaign not yet in full swing, the public has already had enough of the 2015 general election. Parliamentary democracy, for which so many generations fought and died, is greeted at best with weariness, at worst with disgust. Yet we make no apology for running half a dozen articles about the UK election this month. Britain’s survival as an independent nation state is at stake.
A glance across the Channel suffices to remind us of how precious our political system, for all its imperfections, remains. In Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the leather-clad leftists of Syriza and their anti-Semitic allies resemble barbarians far more than Pericles and Plato. Their method of dealing with their country’s predicament is to try to blackmail Berlin into bankrolling them by threatening to flood Europe with refugees and jihadists, or to confiscate German assets. The godfather of these petty gangsters—who have been instantly adopted by would-be Byrons everywhere—is of course Vladimir Putin. Edward Lucas’s Dispatch (“Let’s Make Putin’s London Cronies Sweat”) should cure any temptation (Nigel Farage, please note) to flirt with the Kremlin’s ideology: not so much idolatry as necrolatry, the worship of the dead. Lenin’s mummy remains enshrined in Red Square because Putin is fixated on his KGB past. He does not care how many lives he sacrifices to his secret policeman’s obsession: the restoration of Russian autocracy.
In such a deranged and dangerous world, an island nation does well to arm itself against the unexpected. But there is nothing unexpected about the kind of threats that Britain faces: nuclear proliferation, Islamist terrorism, Russian aggression. Not to rearm, as Australia is already doing, now seems perverse. The Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP is arbitrary and takes no account of value for money; but it is an earnest of commitment. As economic growth returns, politicians prefer tax cuts or pet projects to maintaining the proportion of spending devoted to the defence of the realm.
Defence has at least figured in the campaign (thanks to a media blitz by the top brass). What, though, of the moral issues that matter so much to the public but little to the political class? In his eloquent j’accuse (“Mr Cameron, Show The Country You Care”), Stephen Glover draws on a new book by Eliza Filby to show how Margaret Thatcher was the last Prime Minister to care deeply about issues other than material welfare. Hence she now seems far more serious than the present cast on the political stage. Her politics had a moral framework rooted in the Bible, Magna Carta and the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill.
Indeed, our contemporary political elite strikes many people as unable or unwilling to face up to such intractable problems as the collapse of the family or the loss of national identity. Nor are politicians frank about the flaws that have crept into our electoral process, which Michael Pinto-Duschinsky (“Don’t Rig The System In Favour Of Coalitions”) argues could call into question the legitimacy of the result and hence be damaging to democracy itself.
What is often depicted as the failure of the Westminster model is in reality the failure of a generation of technocrats. The adversarial system is intended to nurture the leaders of high calibre who are necessary to run a country with no written constitution. “Leadership,” Mrs Thatcher told her economic adviser, the late Sir Douglas Hague, in 1982: “You tell people what to do and they do it. That is leadership.” She had the moral courage to confront and defeat the enemies of the open society at home and abroad. Who is made of such stuff in today’s House of Cowards?
There are, it is true, a handful who are driven by moral considerations. Frank Field, who writes in this edition (“Warring Gangsters Who Run The Country”) about gang warfare in Westminster, is a notable if somewhat isolated example in the Labour Party. Michael Gove gave a remarkable speech last month that called on Conservatives to “affirm that we are warriors for the dispossessed . . . We are in public service to help the people who need us, not just those who agree with us.” Yet his intervention was criticised as a “coded attack on the party’s campaign”.
It is no accident that Mr Gove, like Mr Field, is on the advisory board of Standpoint. Like many others inside and outside Parliament, from the Left as well as the Right, they share our concern that public life is increasingly detached from the Judaeo-Christian tradition that still provides the moral foundations of our nationhood. Nobody need feel that to champion those who “do the right thing” is to be self-righteous—but if such sentiments are not to be empty rhetoric, they must be backed up by policies that reward virtue and penalise vice. Politicians must not be afraid to be “judgmental”; in fact, it is their job.
When, for example, Iain Duncan Smith began his mission to reform the welfare state, his was a quiet voice coughing in the wilderness. Now his views are mainstream and his reforms are bearing fruit. There are voices in other parties who share Mr Duncan Smith’s determination to ensure that the state does no harm, above all by discouraging work. In our next issue James Mumford will profile one of them: Maurice Glasman, the “Blue Labour” peer who was initially close to Ed Miliband but marginalised by the party machine after speaking his mind. A Times leader praising Mr Gove called on the Tories to offer a “moral as well as a practical vision”. In fact, to be moral is to be practical. George Osborne deserves great credit for his economic miracle. (See, however, Tim Congdon on George Osborne.) But as Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, said, man does not live by bread alone.