It’s grey here. The coats worn by harassed commuters, the uniform but undulating low cloud, the melding of glass and steel in the new build fantasy of a modern global city. Nature, they say, is healing. In London, this means we fade to grey.
Greyest of all is the sterility of political debate. The country has just gone through conference season. Once the highlight of the political year, it would start, as an hors d'oeuvre, with the drunken rage fest that was the Trade Union’s Congress, poignantly remembered by Peter Hitchens here. Then in quick succession would come the party congresses of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal (Now Liberal Democrat) Parties. Interspersing these traditional courses would come the amuse bouches or palate cleansers of whatever small parties or regional parties that had crossed the threshold of public consciousness.
For delegates these were a time to go to rotating, out of season, somnambulant seaside resorts. Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton. Towns, faded by time and neglect, but rich in Bed and Breakfast establishments, run by characters out of gothic fiction. Nights would be spent in the official conference hotels, drunken, gossipy, conspiratorial and the associated, desperate, hopeful coupling. Tips would be shared about how to gain entry to the best parties "there’s fish and chips and free flowing champagne at Jeffery Archer’s bash on the 8th floor, but it's got a strict door policy". I once saw an intrepid group of 20 somethings attempting entry to a storied party, via the hotel’s rickety dumb waiter. I don’t know if they made it, I don’t know if they are still stuck behind the paneling, dried to a husk like pre-columbian mummies.
Mornings were a miasma of full English breakfasts and watery coffee. But the days, the days, were something worth having. Spent alternately in the main hall, listening to what then seemed titans of the public space, and later, out debating and discussing what had happened on the platform itself, in amusement arcades and rickety seaside roller coasters. The politics of Luna park.
Ideas mattered, debate mattered, policy mattered. Politics was rich with possibility. What was said on stage could and did change the weather. Technocrats and scientific data analysts had yet to take over. The national conversation outside these events was dominated by them. What happened at Brighton would be the nation’s dominant conversation, in pubs and workplaces. The central place of politics in the country’s psyche could be seen and felt in institute, legion and social club.
These days are now just a dimly remembered hangover. Today the conferences pass with barely a ripple. Held behind police lines and steel walls, like modern day music festivals. Debate has left the chamber, and now, if it happens at all, takes place on distant narrowed platforms at fringe events hosted by hopeful think tanks. In the chambers sleek, uniformly dressed young men and women, powered by ear pod instructions and the dull shine of corporate cash flood the scene.
What passes for debate in the chambers has been focus-grouped out of existence. Doughnuts are formed in TV sightlines, seats are apportioned to ensure diversity for the cameras. Even the BBC has downgraded its appearance at these events. Why spend the cash on a permanent, travelling outside studio with all its concomitant add ons, when they need to send almost 300 staff to a rock festival?
So what did happen in the last few weeks, when the great beige panjandrums of British politics took centre stage? It is always useful to set a step back and let the foam blow off the wave before having any sort of conclusion after all.
The Liberal Democrats. I honestly cannot remember a thing that they said or did. They themselves describe it as, “a smorgasbord of policy-making, debate, fringe sessions, training and incredible speeches. So you'd be forgiven for missing something or other.”
In fact you would be forgiven for missing the whole thing, so anodyne and milkbread was the smorgasbord fare. But with research I discover that they are pro gay, anti Taliban, pro women, anti bad things, pro spending lots more money on goodthings, like peace funds in the Levant and protecting LGBT (etc) in Afghanistan. They want to spend on building new houses, as long as they are built in areas where they have no clout.
Labour, Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and supposedly the tribunes of the people, were a little better. Though the only thing that was remarkable is that for the first time in most people’s political memory they suffered a reverse conference poll bounce. Those people that did notice that they were having their shindig were so underwhelmed by it that they came out with lower poll ratings afterwards than before. (NB to Tory strategists - get Labour politicians more airtime). The conference did leave a slight imprint. Its leader, Sir Kier Starmer, can handle a little heckling during his speech. And the most important issue for the Labour Party is whether it is politically right or wrong to state that only women have cervixes. Socialism degraded to a debate about the realities of biology.
The Conservatives are the party of government by slogan. Build Back Zero, or Levelling Up Better, or Net something or other. The party of lower taxes and greater individual liberty are presiding over tax increases and a green/covid agenda that will result in a society curtailed, economically and socially. In hock to the loud voices of the older, richer and politically onanistic they see the country’s youth as an ignorant apathetic and financially disempowered irrelevance.
And the people of these fine islands? A feeling of aggressive indifference prevails, if the polling indicates anything. No real change, slight rises and falls as if driven more by the weather than by ideas, policies and engagement. It is our future, but nobody on show connects. Nobody inspires. Thus nobody cares. It is no longer about the people, or for the people, and it certainly isn't by the people.
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