15 July 2021
Playing the Game
By J.R. Thomas
Don’t worry, there is minimal reference to football in what follows…
Politics, like so many matters in the affairs of women (and by this, as always, we include men and all persons of whatsoever sexual disposition and none) runs in fashions. Eighteenth century Europe saw an inexorable, if stoutly resisted in some monarchies, move to liberalism, republicanism and democracy. This neared its apogee, perhaps, at the end of the nineteenth century and slowly the pendulum began its return journey, as democracy turned out not to produce an earthly paradise and a number of thoughtful leaders managed to convince, if not always all their peoples, at least their military, that they had the fascist, communist, or even Peronist solution.
Those of us who would welcome a return to liberalism of the old fashioned sort may alas have a while to wait; the time is not yet it seems, as significant minorities, across Europe at least, hope for continuing lockdowns, restraint, and curfews (perhaps not surprising among populations not yet prepared to challenge the growth of a non-elected European supra-state). In Africa and South America and parts of Asia, meanwhile, hopes of open democracies slowly fade by way of corruption and greed in favour of bad old dictatorships.
And that lack of ambition for self-determination is reflected in the political leadership in many countries. The rise of the populist leader, the powerful personalities channelling the spirits of Churchill, or Napoleon, or Bismarck, even if badly understood, hardly fit well with the concept of participatory and conciliatory democracy. Only in the USA are there signs of what a liberal democrat might wish for. Joe Biden might not seem much of a figurehead for freedom, but he is at least a sign that there are still a lot of voters in the US who want to get back to the concept of a leader as a mild, decent, even somewhat dull, individual who tries to be even-handed and to make compromises between the various interests that make up the electorate. (It does need the Republicans to find a candidate for 2024 who is not Donald Trump to complete the process.)
At which point we must move from the sweeping overview of world political philosophy to Keir Starmer. Sir Keir Starmer. Which is one of the few missteps of his career. What possessed him to accept a knighthood when he had such strong political ambitions is likely to remain one of the great mysteries of our times. It is true he was not then an M.P., that it was traditional to do the thing on completion of a long stretch as Director of Public Prosecutions, that his legal career was worthy of such recognition, perhaps even that the Missus was anxious for a little more respect at J Sainsbury. But it was a major mistake. It marks him as an establishment man, it has led many of his target voters to assume that he is some highborn nob, if not y’r h’actual h’aristocrat (rather than the son of a south London toolmaker), and it enables his Commons opponents to drawl out “Siiiiir Keir” at every opportunity. But Keir has not made many mistakes in his admittedly relatively short political career. The danger is that he will start making them now.
Which is why a lot of commentators and many in his own party are busy writing him off. They may be right. The Labour Party is a pretty weird confection of interests, a historic compromise between Methodists and Marxists, between working folk and Hampstead champagne swiggers, between trade unionists and academics. And many other types. In a system like Britain’s, where winners take all both in constituencies and in the Commons, political parties are inevitably compromises. Indeed, the more they can accommodate flexing of principles, the broader the appeal. The Conservatives worked this out long ago, and under H. Wilson and T. Blair, Labour seemed to have learned the lesson. The big question for K Starmer is, can he make them relearn the lesson?
We promised last week that we would outline why Keir Starmer may survive his present unpopularity. The public are bored by him, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is failing to oppose (though what it is supposed to oppose when the government pinches almost all of Labour’s clothes and leaves them only with policies of, say, anti-vaxxing, high taxes, and scrapping the armed forces, is not clear), the Corbyn mob hate him, the working class think he is remote, and the Unions are resolutely heads to the wall “can’t see you, can’t hear you”.
But let us invite you to throw your minds back to 1945. The country had had six years of turmoil, danger, and over-excitement, with a leader not noted for his moderation and calm thoughtful personality, who against stunning odds had brought about an astonishing victory. So at the first opportunity a huge majority chucked out the hero and voted for a middle-aged boring lawyer of quiet mien.
And that is Keir’s stock in trade. When we are sick of all the excitements, the over-the-top embellishments, the naughty if funny misbehaviours, the constant struggle and shouting and sackings, plus endless policy changes and grand gestures, we will want a boring, slightly dull, happily married, analytical, cautious lawyer, from a conventional skilled working class background, with no imagination as to dress other than with tie or without tie, and brylcreemed hair. He will be the perfect man for the times. We know there is an iron fist hidden in the inner pocket of the blue suit. We will come to appreciate a man who carefully plans his political manoeuvres. We will appreciate sincerity over wit, analysis over bombast, thoroughness over winging it. We will feel comfortable that this is a man who really does like football (Arsenal) and not one, like some premiers we could name, who swatted up the subject pre-press conference, or whose uncle owned the club.
In short we will soon want a quiet life and here is the right man to give us just that. Now, all this is not to say that Bojo is wrong and Keista is right, or that one will do a better job than the other. And we warn that the mild Mr Attlee presided over one of the most radical (and your correspondent would argue, disastrous) governments of the last 150 years. We are just pointing out that in politics fashions come and go, and Keir’s time is a’coming. Starmer must just stick to his boring knitting and not be reinvented. We strongly suspect he will not change, he is too honest and decent a cove for that, but whether the need for him will reach the perception of the electorate before the Labour Party commits further acts of suttee and chucks him on the pyre, who knows. But at least the good folk of Batley and Spen gave Keir a further time to get a grip on the swirling factionalism below him. Use it well, Sir Keir. You may even end up, like Earl Attlee, as Earl Starmer.