in Mr Gove
There is a moral dilemma facing the Unionist Scot at this general election, and it is as follows. The SNP seems likely to do particularly well on May 7, to the extent that it will be in a position of unprecedented influence in the next parliament. If Labour becomes the largest single party but fails to win an overall majority, it may be that the only way to make the numbers work will be for it to ask the Nats to join a formal coalition. But this would be oxymoronic: how can separatist politicians be given jobs within a government that it is their professed aim to destroy?
The SNP is, whatever its modern-day sophists claim, effectively a cult that cares for nothing but achieving its single, ultimate goal — everything else is considered and calibrated only in so far as it advances matters towards that end. Therefore the suspicion must be that if the party judged that pulling down a Westminster administration of which it was part would enhance the likelihood of Scottish independence, it would do so without pause, regardless of the impact on the totality of the people who live across these small islands. Just look at how it handled the Smith Commission report, which it signed in the morning and denounced in the afternoon. Asking the SNP to join the UK government would be an act of vandalism, like deliberately introducing woodworm to a fine Regency cabinet.
On the other hand, if Scots see fit to send 25, 30, 40 —maybe even more — Nat MPs south, it could be taken as a national affront were these people to be viewed by Westminster as beyond the pale. The message would be that Scotland’s democratic choice could not be accommodated in a UK government, even one run by Labour. This is risky. After all, the SNP, for all its awfulness, is not Sinn Fein.
This is an issue that splits Scotland and England: a poll yesterday found 51 per cent of Scots think Labour should be prepared to do a deal with the SNP, compared to 36 per cent against. The English rule out such a deal by 55 to 19. The camp around Ed Miliband is also divided. Few of his Scottish MPs could contemplate a coalition with the Nats: they have been engaged in a close-combat knife fight for decades, and the wounds of the independence referendum have hardly begun to heal. But then there might not be very many of them left on May 8. And there are few, if any, Scots at Mr Miliband’s top table anyway, which not only tells you something about the changing demographics of the Labour party, but also explains why the prospect of a coalition is being seriously considered.
To coalesce or not? The answer to that question illustrates the tension between democracy and politics. Neither choice feels a good one for Unionists. Perhaps the only election outcomes that would be worse would be 1) an overall majority for the Tories but with no seats at all in Scotland (a first, that), or 2) a Tory majority in England, whose people then found themselves governed by a grisly alliance of Ed Miliband, Alex Salmond and Pete Wishart. At that point, we Scots should get our coat.
It remains baffling to me that we are even in this position. For one thing, and try as I might, I cannot visualise Mr Miliband as prime minister. Few people I speak to can. I genuinely cannot get my head around the idea that we think this is the best we can do, that we would send him into the ring as our champion against Putin and the rest. Yet set against the Labour leader’s clear unelectability is the basic maths. Due to the warped structure of our constituency boundaries it is much, much harder for the Tories to be the largest party: they would need a lead of something like 11 points to achieve an overall majority. With just over six weeks to go the parties are even in the polls, which leaves not much time for David Cameron to make up an awful lot of ground.
But I feel there’s an even more jarring dissonance currently at play in our politics, and it was laid bare for me by two events last week. First, Labour published its ‘pledges’ for the election, which include a strong economy, higher living standards, a well-performing NHS, and a country ‘where the next generation can do better than the last’. For some reason it left out ‘not pushing old ladies off the pavement’. The party says it will ‘balance the books and cut the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS’, freeze energy bills until 2017, raise the minimum wage to £8 and provide 25 hours of free childcare. There will be 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 more GPs, guaranteed GP appointments within 48 hours and cancer tests within one week. Tuition fees would be cut to £6,000, there would be a guaranteed apprenticeship for every school leaver who gets the basic grades, and smaller class sizes for five to seven year olds.
Pure sugar, so why such a sour aftertaste? In part, I think, because this confirms that Labour is nowhere near ready for a return to government. These pledges don’t show deep thinking, but its absence. They don’t reveal a serious attempt to wrestle with the realities of our forbidding deficit and terrifying debt, but the turning of a blind eye. There is no alternative philosophy here to that offered by the Tories, but rather a dumb, blunt belief in spending money in the same old way.
And I can’t help but contrast this with a speech given by Michael Gove on Thursday to launch an initiative called The Good Right. This has been set up by the Tory journalist and campaigner Tim Montgomerie and Stephan Shakespeare, founder of the polling company YouGov, with the intention of persuading people that — another apparent oxymoron — Conservatism has a heart. As Mr Gove put it in his speech (which I urge you to read): ‘Only if we remind people of our commitment to social justice, demonstrate our belief in equality of opportunity and affirm that we are warriors for the dispossessed will we be able to win arguments, and elections, and then be in a position genuinely to help the vulnerable and the voiceless. People need to know what’s in our hearts before they are prepared to consider our arguments in their heads.’
For years now, I have believed this to be so. I don’t belong to any party, and never will, but I see a strong spine of compassion and morality running through Conservatism’s core, coupled with a puzzling indifference to making that case. For too long the Tories have appealed to people’s wallets above their souls, when they should have been doing both. Mr Gove —it’s surely no accident he’s a Scot — exemplifies what his party should be: he is driven by the potential for politics to help the less fortunate, as can be seen from the schools revolution he led in England. He argues that ‘inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time and fighting it is central to our mission in Government.’ He believes the centre-right delivers better outcomes for poor people than the centre-left, despite the self-ascribed moral superiority of the latter. And he backs this up with statistics, history and philosophy. When Mr Gove cites the records of leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Arthur Balfour, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Rab Butler and Harold Macmillan, he does so convincingly.
On the national debt, which should loom over a politician’s every thought like a dark cloud, Mr Gove points out that ‘there is nothing compassionate about asking the young to clear up a mess we couldn’t be bothered to tackle ourselves. What is progressive about spending more on debt interest than on schools or childcare, what is compassionate about handing over more of our money to financiers than we spend on mental health or child protection?’
I started out as a political journalist in the mid-90s, and it was a time of extraordinary intellectual vibrancy on the centre-left. It had the most exciting and charismatic politicians, the sharpest think tanks and the best new ideas. It won elections, and lots of them, deservedly. But this hasn’t been the case for a long time, now. The intellectual vibrancy, the willingness to challenge received wisdom and take the hard path, to rethink itself and the country around it, sits with the centre-right. With people like Michael Gove.
For this reason, I think it’s clear Britain needs another term of Conservative government, whether with the Lib Dems or not. And the Tories need at least to keep their current single seat in Scotland. But then, I live in Stirling, where my choice is between a Labour MP or an SNP one. Obviously, I’m only going to vote one way. So on this occasion, dear reader, I ask that you do as I say, not as I do.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 16, 2015