Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
If this is to be the last British election it will be because her leaders have forgotten how to speak to a nation. Even in a place as level-headed as the United Kingdom, campaigning is an art that ought to involve at least a measure of excitement, anticipation and hope.
Nicola Sturgeon aside we have been treated to minimal, defensive campaigning without story or argument. They are like the third-rate A-level essays that, despite Michael Gove’s heroic efforts against The Blob, are still sufficient to command an A grade, in which it is enough to make certain statements of fact and a waste of effort to weave them into a case for government.
It is the best that a politician as limited as Ed Miliband can do, but David Cameron is a far better communicator whose abilities these tactics suppress. He has sincere regret, confidence and the projection of hope at his command, but even he will find them hard to convey by endless repetition of “our long term economic plan is working.” He is an Arsenal-standard politician, but his Australian coach (whose personnel management is much better than his British political judgement) has condemned him to play at Aston Villa’s (or is it West Ham’s?) level. The Crosby School of Communication, perfect for the dull John Howard, has denied the Conservatives their greatest asset, and brought the party down to the level of its inhuman robot opponent.
How narrow the campaign looked last week when, after 700 boat people had drowned, we were forced to defend the cancellation of the “Mare Nostrum” rescue mission on the grounds that rescuing refugees from drowning constituted a “pull factor” enticing them to make the journey. I’m sure that language would have played well in the lab conditions of a focus group, when the horror that endorsing it would imply was out of mind.
Who are these boat people, anyway? It matters little whether they are refugees fleeing war and persecution or economic migrants escaping destitution. They are men and women prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to build a better life for themselves and their families. They risk death in the desert, capture by jihadists, sexual violence and enslavement. Ours is in an old continent with low productivity growth, and we need these people. We should teach them English and take them in like we did Ugandan Asians and refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Some could become Conservative peers, as Lord Popat and Baroness Helic have.
If we had a political culture that gave our leaders the space to have confidence in its values and history, this is what we could have done. Instead, we allow ourselves to be dragged down to Ed Miliband’s bog-standard. We make hand-brake turns, promising to spend vast sums on the NHS which others will believe as much as we believe Ed Miliband’s vow to be fiscally responsible.
Incidentally, the NHS, perhaps because of its poor record in keeping people alive has now been taken up as a model by the Islamic State, which owes its existence of Ed Miliband’s sabotaging of humanitarian intervention in Syria, but I digress.
Nonetheless, even if Cameron has given a little glimpse of his inner Netanyahu (“the Scottish are voting…in droves”), Miliband displays all the pragmatism of Salvador Allende. On Sunday he was confronted by Andrew Marr about his rent controls. Instead of attempting to explain why he thought them a good idea, he just dismissed reality, imploring us to feel sorry for renters. It was of no importance to him that every economist in the world, and even Vietnamese communist party officials think rent controls a counterproductive disaster that will restrict supply and encourage landlords to run their properties down into squalor. The political symbol was more important. If he gets to form a government, he will have the power of the state to reinforce his denial of reality.
Reality will catch him up, but before it does, people will be put out of work, companies will close, banks will move to Hong Kong and Singapore and capital will leave the country. It is probably too late to win against this inferior opposition, but we can still grind out a draw.