4 July 2019
Dignity in Politics
by J.R. Thomas
Readers blessed with small children will know the difficulties in damping down the near-fratricide that from time to time breaks out, usually ending in pushing and shoving and tears before bedtime. Those readers who also follow UK politics may feel (unless their experience with children has been unusually benign) that the rumbustious are being set an appalling example by the present generation of politicians and political commentators. Subtlety of expression, let alone of meaning, has long flown out the window; manners left at the Westminster playground gates; tolerance and understanding, concepts long forgotten.
We normally avoid free advertising for the competition, but last week’s Spectator usefully illustrated the depths to which the parliamentary kindergarten has sunk. It carried four contrasting articles. Max Hastings, distinguished military historian, journalist, former editor of the Telegraph, and general Grand Old Man, was given the Diary page mostly to discuss Boris Johnson, a name needing no elucidation. Sir Max does not like Boris. At all, not one little bit. “Egomania” rules him, says Sir M. A comedian; a Little Englander, a man who has, he implies, fathered numerous children outside the bounds of matrimony. And Hastings was restraining himself. He picked up a further fee for further and riper comments in, of all unlikely places for a truly blue Tory, the Daily Mirror, accusing Johnson of cowardice, lack of dignity, and if chosen for the great office he seeks, likely contempt for rules, procedures, order, and stability.
Steady on, old boy. He and you are members of the same party, facing the wagging Corbyn beard and the glittering MacDonnell eyes; they have already outlined a number of un-Tory policies that they will roll out at high speed if elected. Too much scrapping in the Tory playground and the nasty children from the comprehensive next door will be doing unspeakable things in front of the bike shed. (There’s a thought; this extraordinary enmity from a normally reserved old buffer could not have anything to do with Max having served time at Charterhouse, whilst Boris was a King’s Scholar at Eton? H’mmm. Just a thought)
Having left its traditional readers reeling, one presumes, the Speccie hastily moved to redress things. Charles Moore, also a former Telegraph editor, came on strong for Boris, and carefully kicked his challengers off their (BBC debate) high chairs. And Toby Young then asked “What make’s Boris’s enemies so mad?”, pointing out that much of the criticism seen of the blonde one is of his racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Though there is not the slightest evidence of any of these traits. If Toby has a criticism, it is that Boris is presenting as an anti-establishment populist whilst in truth holding highly mainstream liberal elite views. That chaotic, jolly joking, pratfall prone, exterior contains, muses Young, nothing very original or startling for those who fear the resurgence (or surgence) of the mob. The mob being those who live outside London and voted Leave, and don’t like paying tax, and would like tougher police handling of those weirdos who infest Trafalgar Square from time to time.
But the Spectator had not finished toying with the serenity, if not sanity, of its readers. Onwards a few more pages and there was Matthew Parris with his weekly column. Mr Parris is not like Max Hastings; no chance of confusing those two in a dark bar; but Matthew is, like Max, normally civilised and thoughtful. But not on Brexit, or Boris. Mr Parris wants to Remain, but he wants Boris to Leave; and go somewhere very far away and never be seen again. “A bridge too far” he calls him, a “cold eyed scoundrel” (the libel lawyers must have chewed their pencils a bit over that one).
Chaps, stop it. Enough. Where have your manners gone? Where is that subtlety of expression that makes society function? Why use up your strongest bile for a middle aged man who just wants to lead the Tory Party? How on earth would you discuss another Hitler or Stalin, or rising Chinese dictator, or President of Syria who turned the full force of his weaponry on his own people? Get a sense of perspective. Have a bit of dignity, if you want to hold public office or be regarded as a serious commentator on the curious ways of our modern world. Just because you can vulgarly insult rivals to an audience of millions does not mean you have to, or sound as though you were just ejected from a late night public bar.
And just because Donald does it, does not mean it’s nice, you know? His tweets are simplistic, rude, and vulgar, and the only possible excuse a well-bred real estate tycoon has for communicating in such terms is that his opponents are just as rude, often more so than he is. We exempt here Mr Boden and Mr Sanders who are polite and speak nicely of all, as does indeed Mr Johnson, whose wit enables him to do any insulting required in a way that does not offend and does make us laugh.
In 1963 the Prime Minister was Harold Macmillan, who had in 1957 brought about the political end of his arch rival Anthony Eden, exercising his demonic political arts beneath a cloak of the utmost politeness and consideration. Eden left without calling Mac any names or drawing attention to his odd private life or suggesting that his ambition was immoral. The Conservative Party did not split or start brawling in the street. Macmillan won the general election two years later with an increased majority. In 1963 Macmillan had to go; he claimed to be not well but perhaps more relevant was a series of disasters – Ms Keeler and Mr Profumo, a botched cabinet re-shuffle, rising public debt. The leading possible successors were three cabinet ministers, Messrs Butler, Hogg (Lord Hailsham), and Maudling. They were fairly deadly rivals and very different characters – Hogg being the Boris of his time and Butler, you might say, the Hunt. It was a titanic struggle for the job, fought over the period of the Conservative Party conference. Each of them had weaknesses that they would not have wanted debated in the public prints. But they all maintained a public demeanour of respect, of honouring their rivals, of seriousness focussed on the welfare of their country and future policies. The contrast with the petty rudeness, the childishness, the vulgarity and stupidity of the leadership debate we have just seen is very striking. As currently in the USA, where the myriad leagues of Democrat hopefuls shouted at and over each other in their TV debates, managing to make President Trump look dignified and reserved (the President has, we would argue, some, maybe many, virtues, but to make him look dignified and reserved is a truly remarkable achievement by the Democrats). That is what is happening in Britain too – the Conservatives have managed to make the Labour leadership look half sensible and trustworthy, something Messrs Corbyn and MacDonnell and Abbot are not normally capable of, left to themselves.
So get a grip, Troublesome Tories, Quarrelsome Conservatives. Or the public will look at you in despair and horror.
And what, you may ask, happened to those three polite and gracious contenders in 1963? Ah. Ahaha, indeed. Supermac dished them all, and sent Alec Douglas-Home to the Palace as his anointed successor. Maybe there’s hope for Rory Stewart yet.