Conference Charades

‘The Tories want to help people save their local pub. I can do that by drinking in it. Shouldn't they be saving this country's sovereignty?’

The most vacuous and wasteful spectacle of the year is at last over. But before getting on to the party conference season I want to acknowledge the end of Anthony Gormley’s fourth plinth display in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know how many readers saw people take up vacant statue space on the fourth plinth. The rolling hour-long stints were filmed and screened live on the web.

In the square where Nelson, Havelock and Napier are commemorated, members of the public high on self-promotion strutted a vacant hour on the vacant plinth: a sort of X Factor for the less gifted.

The result was like a mummers’ play of modern Britain. Want of meaning met, as so often, want of attention. Bowing to the god of health and safety, the plinth had a precautionary layer of netting. So even the one aspect that might have redeemed the exercise — the promise of exhibitionists losing their footing and plunging to the ground — was taken from us.

Some exhibitionists just stood there. Others wandered aimlessly as if surprised to find themselves at such a pass. Others tried to shout a message. Some were coherent. A predictable number decided to stand naked, catching a chill as well as column inches.

On one evening in September, a man was beaten to death in the square after tackling some youths who had been yelling homophobic abuse at him. The CCTV cameras covering the square could not capture good enough likenesses of the yobs who kicked and punched him to the ground. But the cameras a few yards away focusing on the fourth plinth for the live internet transmission carried every detail of the individual on the plinth, loitering, listless, pointless and presumably unaware of the savagery taking place just beyond the glare of the lights.

Which brings me to the party conference season.

I knew I loathed party conferences before even going to one. Last year, I accepted invitations to speak on the fringe of the Conservative conference. This year, I was on something like the fringe of the fringe. Next year, I anticipate being put in a different city altogether.

But this year I realised what it is that makes me so suspicious of these jamborees. It is not the awkwardness, the fakery, the necessarily forced jollity or solemnity. It is the standing ovations. Each year, ovations are given to the leaders before and after speaking but also, at special moments recognised as such by the herd, during the speeches. Every anti-totalitarian hair should stand on end. But this year there was something additionally idiotic about it all. What had any of the parties actually got to congratulate themselves on? Herd-ism is bad enough at the best of times but after a year of political fiddling it is beyond excuse.

During one of the hours I was in Manchester for the Conservative conference, I sat on a BBC panel with Jeremy Hunt, the shadow Culture Secretary, tipped as a rising Tory star. We were debating social media and how the internet, Twitter and the like might alter future elections. Hunt waxed lyrical about the excitement he felt about “democratising politics” and “bringing people into the discussion”. He was “positive”, “excited”, “forward-looking” and generally in favour of people. I explained that I thought political parties were failing to communicate with people because they were ignoring almost all their significant concerns, not because they weren’t twittering enough.

Hunt told us of an initiative launched that day — MyConservatives.com — through which people could keep in touch with the party. “Like what?” I wondered. The first campaign, Hunt informed us, was aimed at helping people save their local pub.

I help my local pub by drinking in it. I don’t expect the government or political parties to assist me. But it provided an interesting comparison. Just two days before Hunt and I spoke, the Irish voted “Yes” in their second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The vote made the likelihood that Britons would get a vote on Lisbon even more remote. The Tory response was to forbid discussion of Europe during their conference. I pointed this out and Hunt remained silent. To no avail I pointed out how strange it was that while the Conservatives might help you save your local pub, they would do nothing to save the sovereignty of your nation.

The cameras were running and the lights were dazzling. But, as with the fourth plinth, the whole charade was not only vacant but somehow tragic. Somewhere in Britain things are happening, but beyond the cameras and behind the lights. I can’t believe the politicians aren’t aware of this. But I do wonder for how much longer they can retain their posture of statuesque disdain.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search