In 2010, Britain was being wrestled over by two parties competing to portray themselves to the public as the natural party of government. Â In his first conference speech, David Cameron returned repeatedly to the theme of “substance”. Â He told his party:
“Real substance is about taking time to think things through, not trotting out easy answers that people might want to hear. Â It’s about sticking to your guns. Â It’s about character, judgement, and consistency. Â It’s about policy, yes. Â But it’s about getting it right for the long term.”
Two years later, Gordon Brown regained initiative telling his own party at their conference that it was no time for a novice. Â Both parties were appealing to the voters’ innate caution, to the importance of politicians as steady, moderate and above all competent.
British politics has changed completely. Â The establishment is under attack as never before, from insurgents on the left and right simultaneously. Â
The Labour party has been taken over by a faction that has demonstrated no interest in appealing to competence or caution. Â In his opening conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn made a virtue of not wanting to impose leadership lines at all times and of expecting real debate not message discipline at all times, of wishing to carry on being an individual activist. Â He has been true to his word on all counts. Â Blairites are as appalled by the style as by the substance of what he says.
Meanwhile, the insurgent right is currently consumed by the referendum on EU membership. Â Without even a pretence of coherence, they campaign on running away from the complexities of multilateral engagement, variously on immigration, regulation, security concerns or whatever else flits across their minds (how leaving the EU is actually going to help on any of these fronts remains largely unexplored). Â Their figureheads, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, campaign on charisma rather than competence.
With the Labour right in longterm internal exile and the Lib Dems obliterated, the sole repository of the flame of good administration at present is the current Cabinet. Â Can they withstand the onslaught of the crazies? Â You would think that offering competence in government as a USP would be a great vote-winner but everyone else seems to be having too much fun being irresponsible to make adult behaviour look enjoyable.
The wise commentators tell us that the public will be sensible in the votes that really matter. Â Perhaps. Â But isn’t democracy about giving the public a choice? Â If in the foreseeable future there is space for only one responsible party, that doesn’t give much ideological choice for those who value good government.
And sooner or later, a solitary party of good administration will be defeated (probably by its own complacency, lack of direction or flatfootedness). Â By default, if there is only one such party, the new government will not be anywhere near as interested in good administration. Â It will be about then that the public would find out the virtues of dull competence.