We are just weeks away from a General Election. It is likely to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience with the two leaders of our major parties willing to use arguments and language that appeal to the worst side of human behaviour. It is as if, at a tense derby football game, the competing managers stood in front of their group of supporting fans and led them in the most hostile and aggressive set of chants. No-one would wish to take their family to such an event.
The two party leaders behave in different ways but both can threaten civilised democratic discourse. Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes concerted attacks on elites: apparently defined as anyone who is professionally successful and who takes a more informed and measured view of the country’s future. As an Eton educated Prime Minister his populist views apparently exclude him from any charge of elitism. Jeremy Corbyn has a different style. He is unrelentingly courteous in Parliament but shrugs his shoulders at the excesses of behaviour from his supporters at local levels. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are most comfortable when whipping up the faithful at rallies. Neither are thoughtful politicians – let alone coalition builders.
All in all, it is not looking good. Whatever the result of the election, I hope that one consequence will be the subsequent emergence of a concerted campaign to restore the best traditions of our democracy and the need to conduct elections in a civilised fashion. This involves treating your opponents with respect.
Nostalgia is not always productive but I look back almost half a century to the first election where I stood as a candidate. In 1970, as a twenty-three-year-old I was the Labour Candidate in the safe Tory seat of Leominster, a huge chunk of rural Herefordshire. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The nearest I encountered to overt hostility was when a young farmer and his mate deliberately revved up their tractor engines to drown out my loudspeaker speech. This gave me useful headlines in the local paper.
Moreover, I can recall being treated with the utmost courtesy by the local committee of the National Farmers’ Union when asked to address them “It’s clearly no good asking you questions in detail so we can do no more than thank you for coming”. One incident in particular will stay in my memory. At a public meeting in the market town of Ledbury the local Conservative Chairman, a retired military gentleman turned up and asked a question about reform of the taxation system. I did not agree with his premise but, fresh from an economics degree, offered him a considered reply. At the end of the meeting the gentleman concerned stood up and said, that on behalf of those present, he would like to wish the young candidate every success in his endeavours in life. It was only later that I fully appreciated the generosity of this gesture.
I doubt if incidents of this type will feature in the forthcoming General Election. One can just hope that nasty chanting, egg and milkshake throwing and the drowning of legitimate interventions from working journalists will be kept to a minimum. Set against this, there is no way that Internet abuse and threats can be controlled.
By tolerating these assaults on democracy, we have lost something important. However, if enough people desire it, tolerance could eventually prevail. There are sufficient people from the traditional mainstream in both parties who would like to see this happen but it requires leadership willing to reach out and include rather than reinforcing prejudices.
There is old Welsh proverb, taken from the folk stories known as the Mabinogi: “A fo ben, bid bont” translated as “He would be a leader, let him be a bridge” (or “bear the load). Bendigeidfran the giant laid down across a river to let his forces walk across his body when on a mission to rescue the maiden in distress.
I doubt if Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn will behave like Bendigeidfran the giant but they could begin by trying to keep their more extreme supporters under control.
leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges. If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.