In an ideal world we might spend the festive season and the depths of winter untroubled by the intrusions of self-serving and inadequate members of our political class, and what passes for their visions and policies. Being of a certain age I can recall a world before 24-hour news, and when such bulletins as there were did not devote themselves entirely to the squeakings and rumblings of those who purport to govern us. Decades ago, if you did have a politician forced down your throat, he or she was usually someone who could do up their shoelaces without the aid of a diagram, so you might occasionally hear something intelligent. More, as is so often said, has inevitably meant less.
As 2023 turns into 2024 we would all benefit from the peace and quiet of the season to reflect on the state of our world and of our democracy – which, for all its failings, international events continue to remind us we are lucky to have. There’s all the more reason to do so this year, because before the new one is out, we shall almost certainly have had a general election, and all that that entails. This is not a place to make predictions: a year is a very long time in politics, even for a government in so parlous a state as ours. If I could see the future even half reliably, I should be this magazine’s astrologer, with the obligatory dedicated phone lines earning me a pretty penny on the side. But what I will predict is that, after the last few years, many who consider themselves of fixed voting habits will think carefully this time before they follow their usual pattern at the ballot box.
I have usually voted Conservative. As a Gladstonian Liberal I deduced that the party has sometimes been the nearest thing I’ve had to a spiritual home, much more so in the era of Mrs Thatcher than at any time since. I’ve often also been lucky enough to vote for exceptional people with brains and an ethic of public service. This has made the pill easier to swallow when donkeys, turkeys or downright rats have led the party. At such times I have reminded myself that we don’t live in a presidential system, but are all electing someone to represent us in our parliament at Westminster.
At a couple of elections I did not vote: my candidate was an expenses-fiddler (though, once exposed, he paid the money back) who I considered an utter scoundrel. I should rather have put my head in a mincer than vote for him, and the other candidates were uniformly dismal. Still, such a state of disfranchisement (albeit self-inflicted) shows one what life must have been like before the 1832 Reform Act.
Britons face a choice between various mediocrities, frauds, narcissists, fruitcakes and charlatans
We seem to have two enduring problems with our democracy. The first is the pitiful calibre of too many of those who seek to represent us; the second is our mindset of voting tribally. Almost all of us have probably been guilty of this at some point or another. We really must tell ourselves that the beauty of living in a parliamentary system (despite the efforts of the broadcast media to pretend otherwise) is that we can vote for the person who not just best represents our political beliefs, but who also has the values and character needed if our democracy is not to be brought into disrepute.
I have the current good fortune of being represented by a Conservative MP of high intelligence and integrity, who’s made her way in politics through her own considerable talent, and not the usual methods of oiling, toadying and arse-licking. Short of her being arrested for armed robbery or child molestation before the election – outcomes that even in contemporary politics remain unlikely – she will have my vote, irrespective of how near to the cliff-edge the disturbingly visionless leader of her party has taken us by that point.
I am in no doubt that my good fortune is equalled by the misfortune of vast numbers of my fellow Britons who face a choice between various mediocrities, frauds, narcissists, fruitcakes and charlatans. How do such people get to wear the rosettes of mainstream political parties and put their names before us? Because of the idiocy, gullibility, naivete and bone-headedness of the people who select them. One doesn’t get to sit on a selection committee without being a committed activist; though even in the Conservative party, selections are now usually done in open meetings of all the local paid-up members, and not just by hard-core officers.
It would be bad enough if it was simply a case of these fully-fledged tribalists looking for blind commitment (which may or may not be ideological) from the prospective candidate and putative MP. But sadly, things are even worse than that. I have lost count of the number of Tory activists (I don’t know whether this happens in the other parties, but I bet it does) who have told me they failed at endless selections because the members seemed to be looking for an ideal son-in-law or daughter-in-law rather than a Member of Parliament. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder so many marriages end in divorce. People entirely unsuitable for public office, devoid of principle, incapable of taking decisions, and often unequipped with minds of their own, end up in parliament for no better reason than those who selected them thought they’d make good company over the turkey at Christmas.
Admittedly, things have improved a little in the last 30 years. Stories used to do the rounds of women who would make superb MPs being asked at Tory selection committees (composed predominantly of women of a certain age) who would be looking after their husband and children while they were at Westminster. But such improvements are relative. In recent years the party has selected people such as Nadine Dorries, Boris Johnson (twice) and various crooks and perverts to represent them; and, perhaps not thinking so hard as they should have done, members of the public have acquiesced in sufficient quantities to ensure their election to parliament.
The spectacle of these shocking apologies for public servants taking up these important roles should stop us in our tracks. They may have secured their candidacies thanks to the foolishness of the selectors, but they have too often ended up in parliament because of the tribalism of the electors. It is the old story of people in the respective parties’ heartlands voting for a dog because it had a red, or a blue, or an orange rosette on it. That is precisely the behaviour we need to address before we go to the ballot boxes next year.
The 2019 election, in the leaders of the two main parties, offered a choice between a proven liar and a far-left extremist who had watched his party acquire a reputation for antisemitism. Now their successors are almost indiscernible from each other in their monochrome personalities and policies. The Conservatives fail one test of government after another; Labour cannot convince it would do better; and the last time I heard the leader of the Liberal Democrats say anything it was about men menstruating, so I think we can safely rule them out. Perhaps history will record the next election as the one when we stopped being tribal, and started looking at what Martin Luther King admirably called the content of people’s characters. It is about time.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham