This week I write from a country where there are no MPs, which would be blissful – except that the country in question is my own, and infested with several thousand people who want to be MPs, and are polluting our lives with their posters and leaflets and megaphones and rosettes – the last of these making them seem like prizewinning ponies who have let the attention go to their heads, which is not so far from the truth. Except that ponies are pretty.
For I am obliged to write this column before the general election, knowing that it will not appear until the result is known. “So why don’t you stay off it?” I hear you cry. “Why not turn in a piece about your sickeningly sweet children, or the risible inadequacies of some muchloved body of the professional class? We always enjoy those.” The reason is that I want to grab one last opportunity to have a go at Gordon Brown, before it becomes inappropriate to do so, either because he is languishing in ignominious irrelevance or because he has pulled off an extraordinary victory through poll fraud of Zimbabwean proportions, whereupon I would shut up lest the Herald be shut down under anti-terrorism law.
But this is not the place or the time to bang on about Mr Brown’s iniquities as Chancellor and PM: let us now, instead, remember one or two of the gaffes, the inadequacies of expression, those iceberg tips revealing the man who is, to be sure, not daft, but no more at ease with the principal tool of discourse, his native language, than he is with most of its speakers.
There was his inadvertent claim in the Commons – through a lack of rudimentary debating technique – to have saved the world; then there was the “Rochdale” debacle, ie the one in which he misquoted John Bright of Rochdale who, in 1865, described England as “the mother of parliaments”. In Brown’s version this became “the mother of all parliaments”, which neatly conflated the great Quaker parliamentary orator, in his advocacy of extending the franchise, with Saddam Hussein as he looked forward, in 1990, to “the mother of all battles”.
But my favourite Brownism from the recent campaign occurred in an interview after Nick Clegg had been rambling about his potential power in a hung Parliament (I quote from the BBC website, with its punctuation): “Don’t be arrogant enough to assume that you can start talking about after an election, let the people make up their own views.” If only he had understood the import of that little confusion of two stock phrases, what a great contribution to Liberal philosophy he could have claimed! As I never tire of pointing out to MPs I know and meet, they are elected to represent the interests, not the opinions of their constituents. We pay these people to make us freer and better off, and to understand the technical processes of good governance in a depth for which we do not have time. The patronising encouragement of voters on the part of political professionals to have “views” – from abortion and adoption, down to Europe and fox-hunting – to which they will listen, with a carefully cultivated air of respectful attention, and then claim as a mandate”, is the great curse of our times. Millions of people who should care about nothing more, in the ballot box, than the security of their immediate family, feel obliged to have “views” about the bigger picture, and so make them up on a base of ignorance, to the grotesque distortion of parliamentary democracy.
As I said, at the time of writing I don’t know the result of this election. But I do know that it was New Labour’s architects who began in earnest the mendacious flattery of voters’ opinions, in order to distract them from the good husbandry of their interests, and thereby claimed a “mandate” for much destructive trivia; and so it will have served them right that all Nick Clegg’s support, beyond the core of genuine Liberals far exceeded by the Lib Dem vote even five years ago, has come from people who “make up their own views”.