Clouds swell against the Welsh hills, projecting rain on to the trees, tents and bookshops below. But the thunderstorms – the really furious, electric thunderstorms – they’re not so much breaking over this year’s Hay Festival as around it. You’ve probably seen the stories already. David Goodhart, previously angry at not being invited to discuss his book on immigration, The British Dream, has accused the festival’s director of denying Charles Moore a chance to speak about his Thatcher biography. In response, Peter Florence has sighed, “It’s getting a little tedious wasting time on David’s PR campaign”. There’s a full-blown literary spat a-brewing.
For those of us stuck under the dour skies of Westminster, it’s all too familiar – and not just because this row involves members of our extended family. Spats are something that set the political media drooling with ink and excitement. And so, too, are questions about platforms and whom they should be extended too. Were Newsnight and Channel 4 News right to spread Anjem Choudary across the airwaves last week? Were there too many trade unionists on teevee after Margaret Thatcher’s death? Allegations of bias, and of editorial impropriety, hover around every corner.
But there is much else about Hay that is less familiar to political onlookers. Just consider: every year, thousands of people from around Britain – from around the world, even – decamp to a small town on the English-Welsh border to indulge their love of books. It can be done expensively, with a room in one of the area’s smartest hotels and tickets to the main, blockbusting events. Or it can be done relatively economically, from a tent, going to the many free events. The fact is, it is done both ways and everything in between. It’s an open sort of get-together.
Politics also has its festivals, its gatherings for the faithful, but they tend to be of a very different sort. The exemplar here, of course, is the party conference – and what to say about them? They may feature fewer grand quarrels over speakers than Hay, but that’s because all of their speakers come from the same primordial soup bowl, and they’re more shut-off in other ways, too. If you can’t stump up around £700*, then you may as well never pack your bags for Manchester, Birmingham or wherever. And that’s exactly what activists are choosing to do. By many counts, there are now more non-party members at conferences than party members. The suits are outnumbering the geeks.
But even where political get-togethers are cheaper and more open, they’re still not quite like Hay. The insightful debates hosted by think-tanks in Westminster? They only last an hour or two. The televisual roadshow that is Question Time? The audience is only a couple of hundred people strong. Even ConservativeHome’s excellent Victory 2015 conference – which had the benefit of being both interesting and affordable – was narrowed by its own Conservative-ness, even though people from all across the political universe did attend. It was, so to speak, a convention for Austen fanatics against Hay’s world of literature.
There is an argument that all this matters less in an age of social media; that our political commune and argument can be done across Facebook and Twitter. But I reckon this downplays the importance of meeting up. Douglas Carswell’s recent article for the Financial Times – highlighted Mark Wallace on this site – was instructive in this regard. Mr Carswell may be a doyen of iPolitics, but he also takes care to do the good, old-fashioned, face-to-face stuff. He writes, for instance, of “a recent meet-up evening” at which “120 local residents got together for an evening of fish and chips”. “Such events,” he says, “have helped increase my local association membership by 59 per cent.”
So imagine, for a crazy, fleeting instant, a political festival drawn along the same lines as Hay. It would be open to all political geeks, not just those of one party. It would be cheap, with some – if not all – events free to attend. Visitors would flit between a Q&A session with David Cameron, a discussion of defence spending between Jim Murphy and Philip Hammond, karaoke with Nigel Farage, and a raffle organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party. Lambs would gambol around the tents pitched outside. Tea and cake would be served.
Okay, my tongue’s partially in my check, but only partially. For all the impracticalities surrounding such a festival – How would security work? Who would fund it? Where would it be held? – I suspect that something like it would prove popular. After all, by all available evidence, the public is as politically engaged as ever, it’s just that they lack trust in mainstream politics and its participants. A cross-party conference, out in some green and pleasant corner of Britain, may
not be the way to restore that trust completely, but it’s the sort of drastic measure, like those I’ve advocated before, that may help.
But here’s the real impediment: the party leaderships probably wouldn’t sign up to such a festival of politics, particularly if it meant having to work together. One of the saddest leitmotfs of this Parliament has been the defeat of measures to restore trust by the exigencies of party politics. A proper recall mechanism? Curbs on parliamentary perks? Less “Punch and Judy”, as someone once put it? There’s probably more chance of David Goodhart being booked for Hay next year.
* According to a ConservativeHome survey from a couple of years ago.