Matthew Parris

The British public is about to make a big mistake

30 April 2015

1:00 PM

30 April 2015

1:00 PM

On the weekend of 25 April 2015 I started to believe that the party I supported might not win an impending general election. I’m used to that. But I started to believe, too, that my fellow citizens might be about to make a stupid and unfathomable mistake.

I’m not used to that at all. It has come as an awful shock.

For the first time in my life I have understood how it must have felt to be a convinced socialist in Britain these past 36 years since 1979: to live in and love a country whose people had got it completely wrong. ‘Well, diddums,’ I can hear left-wing friends reply: ‘Welcome to our world.’

In the general election of 1979, as a parliamentary candidate, I knew the voters would return me and believed they would return a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher. Obviously, because the country was in a mess and it was Labour governments’ fault. The common sense of the British people (I thought) would prevail.

And it did. It did again in 1983, and in 1987, though by then I sensed that Mrs T. was going a bit off the rails and could understand why not everyone (including some of our own party) felt fully on board. Then came John Major, whom I trusted and admired, so in 1992 when it looked like we were losing I did wonder about the wisdom of the British crowd. But given the last Thatcher years, the poll tax and all that, I would not have blamed my countrymen for taking a gamble with Labour. They didn’t. I felt proud.

The years of embarrassment that followed, as the party I supported humiliated a brave and well-judged Prime Minister, shook my confidence not in the electorate but in my own party. I wasn’t at all surprised when a thoroughly plausible right-of-centre Tony Blair won the country over in 1997. I personally thought he was a charlatan but could see his appeal; and during the economic boom which followed I could see why Britain returned him again at the next election, and the next. I was not convinced by William Hague’s or Iain Duncan-Smith’s leaderships and, though voting Tory without hesitation myself, could see why others hesitated.

All through the pomp of the New Labour hegemony I exonerated my countrymen for their belief in Mr Blair. The explanation was simple: he had charmed and hoodwinked them. It happens. One forgave the voters and blamed Blair.

Then came Gordon Brown and the 2010 general election. It being inconceivable to me that the British could want him to carry on, one felt a slight sense of disappointment that we did not offer a Conservative prime minister the thumping majority he deserved, but never mind: we got a Conservative-led government. And a remarkably good government it has proved, achieving most of the important things it promised and more.

So as 2015 approached, and as May approached this year, I have felt confident, almost relaxed, about the decision we’d make this time. It’s been tough economically for millions — I know that well — so one could hardly expect a Tory landslide; and there has been something rather unlikeable, rather rude, rather mean-spirited, about the impression the party has given from the top downward over the past couple of years.

But the fundamentals of prudent government have stayed sound; David Cameron seems a steady and basically sane sort of chap; our Chancellor is quietly an enlightened politician; and a cautious endorsement by the electorate seemed the likely as well as (to me) the deserved result. I have even hoped for an overall majority this time, and thought it perfectly possible.

More so because of the quality of the opposition. I’ve never shared the contemptuous attitude towards Ed Miliband that most of the media, almost all the Conservative party and a good many of Mr Miliband’s own party have adopted towards him. As Labour leaders go, he has seemed to me perfectly serviceable. Miliband hasn’t been the problem: the problem has been the philosophical mess where there ought to be an opposition’s national idea. I don’t believe the British electorate gets any sense of a Labour vision for Britain. The electorate does, however, sense Labour would spend more, borrow more and interfere more. And the electorate did (I supposed) know that more public spending was not the answer, borrowing nearly sunk us within recent memory, and meddling rarely does any good.

Yet here we go, looking (as I write) as though we may be about to elect a weak, minority Labour government. What possesses us? I’m used to disagreeing with the general public, but rarely have I felt so baffled by their disposition. I’m so very sure they would regret this and just don’t know why they look like doing it. Have I — have we Conservatives — completely misread our countrymen?

But you know (perhaps?) how it feels to be saying something and, even while saying it, even while believing it, hear others snorting? I do know the response — ‘Bad loser!’ — and feel its justice too.

My dear Uncle Ray was a convinced and quietly intense socialist all his life. Ray just kept on believing, kept on loving his country, and kept on being sad that his country didn’t see it his way. He even declined to learn to drive because he believed in public transport and the railways. Politics, philosophy and history were very important to him — part of his core, I think — so to see his world going in completely the wrong direction, so contrary to the future in which he’d believed, must have dismayed this passionate soul profoundly.

As a student and then as a younger man I didn’t see, didn’t think about, how our Britain, our democracy, history itself, were all — as it were — letting Uncle Ray down. Now, as an election approaches which may do the same to me, I do see. Maybe it serves me and my certitudes right.


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