Why the Tories, not the SNP, are sewing the real chaos
By Fergal Kinney
It is received wisdom now that the British political system is in crisis, a state of flux spawned by the banking crisis, entrenched by the expenses scandal, though having its roots much deeper. To say British politics faces an existential crisis would be an exaggeration, but the point remains that now more than ever it falls to politicians to show what successful political process looks like. So why are the Conservative party intent on tarnishing the reputation of all things Whitehall even more? Though warning daily of the ‘chaos’ of a Labour/SNP pact, the real chaos is already happening, and at the root of it lies a Conservative party leadership determined to avoid being held to account.
Like the Scottish referendum last year was, this election should be an exhilarating, fiercely contested national conversation. Despite what the minor parties may say, the ideological gulf between Labour and the Tories is at its biggest since 1992. Despite what the major parties may say, there have never been a bigger range of parties with a chance of taking up seats in the Commons. So why, with two weeks until polling day, does the election still feel so sterile, so anodyne? Much has been made of the stage-managed, choreographed nature of this election campaign thus far from all parties, but it is the Conservatives that are increasingly testing the limits of what is acceptable in a grown up democracy. This week, Ed Miliband held a large Q&A at Manchester Metropolitan University, open for students to attend and with only a handful of Labour party faithful injected into the audience. There were awkward questions, a handful of anti-Trident protestors outside, but the sky did not fall in.
Meanwhile, David Cameron agrees to participate in a local hustings but only on the condition that all questions will be pre-arranged. A Newsnight debate about welfare is cancelled when the Tories refuse to permit a representative to attend at the last minute. Morning press conferences, previously a staple of election campaigns, have been cancelled. Local press complain about the extensive demands made by the Conservative party just to be permitted at a photo opportunity. They espouse the virtues of voting, yet oversee changes that mean millions of voters, largely young voters, have fallen off the electoral role. Months of negotiations for televised debates were continuously sabotaged by the Conservatives, whilst Cameron spoke of “unblocking the logjam” with a straight face. A sensible and fair press would have made his ducking of a head-to-head debate with Miliband a catastrophic move, but we do not have a sensible and fair press. When the governing party behaves like this, it’s trust in politics that takes a hammer blow. Never mind the chaos of an EU referendum and a Tory party leadership contest deciding the next Prime Minister, the Tories are sewing the seeds of future chaos and discontent as they drag this country’s political system through the mud.
It is in Scotland where the Conservative party’s conduct is causing the most damage. Whilst UKIP talk of their ‘political earthquake’, Scotland in the last year is what one really looks like. Only a single digit number of Scottish seats will not go to SNP candidates on May 7th. All of the polling shows it. Everyone knows this. The Labour leadership, for all their bland assertions of ‘fighting for a majority’, especially know it. The Conservative party know their only chances of hanging onto Downing Street lies in making a Scotland an effective democratic pariah; not the elected representatives of one part of the United Kingdom, but an illegitimacy. Never mind healing the wounds of last year’s referendum, or standing up for the 55% of Scottish voters who wanted to remain in the United Kingdom, grubby electoral fun is there to be had. Even amongst their own side, there is unease about the long-term implications of this tactic. Lord Tebbit – admittedly no great fan of Cameron – has lambasted the Prime Minister for ‘compounding the problem’ of ‘irritation with the Westminster establishment’ that fuels the SNP, whilst Lord Forsyth desribed the strategy as “short term and dangerous”. Breaking up the union – something that last year Cameron said would break his heart – is just one of the repercussions of this increasingly toxic campaign.
It was the morning after the Scottish referendum, in the immediate hours after the result was announced, that David Cameron emerged outside Downing Street to directly contradict his earlier promises and announce that Scottish devolution would only take place in tandem with a settlement on English-votes-for-English-laws. With the Tories still so tight-lipped about many of their plans for the next parliament – what the IFS estimates to be a £30bn black hole in their manifesto including £12bn of unidentified welfare cuts – one wonders just what fresh surprises Cameron may have for the British public within hours of the election result if it goes in the favour of the Conservatives. Given some of the policies of the last five years that were not mentioned in the 2010 Conservative manifesto – the bedroom tax, the tripling of tuition fees, the top-down reorganisation of the NHS – we are likely to find an explanation for quite why the Conservatives are so afraid now of debate. As the campaign rumbles on, you are likely to hear again and again about the ‘chaos’ of a Labour/SNP government. The damage done by a virulent Tory election campaign could far outdo the ‘chaos’ of which that same party warns.