Geraint Talfan Davies discusses electoral campaigns, Brexit, Farage, and investing in our infrastructure.
And there are four more weeks of this to go? That is the despairing question on everyone’s lips as this festival of unbridled mendacity gets under way. And I’m not talking about Christmas.
This has been a more dispiriting start to a general election campaign than any of the other fifteen in which I have voted. My first was in 1964. But one must be careful not to be sentimental about the past. After all, political mendacity is as old as democracy itself.
But something has changed. Before, first 24 hour news, and then the age of the internet and social media, politicians peddled less brazen whoppers at a more stately pace, via a daily morning press conference or a more forensic one-to-one interview with Robin Day – the Andrew Neil of his day. Robin Day’s last election was in 1987, when Channel 4 was only five years old, and mobile phones were the size of a housebrick. His interviews, in a world of only four television channels, were centre stage.
Andrew Neil’s efforts, on the other hand, although just as combative are but a short interval of gladiatorial combat, conducted while the rest of the political class and their followers engage in an unceasing electronic clamour in which the imperative seems to be the maintenance of the highest and longest consistent noise level, and in which truth – if it can be heard at all – is merely a ‘nice to have’, but by no means essential.
Even the most honourable politicians are prone to put a gloss on things at election times, when they are, after all, in selling mode. But in the distant past there was time and space for lies and half-truths to be exposed. Today there is hardly a moment to register an elision or untruth, however barefaced, before it is submerged by the next one that comes bouncing along on the dirty tide.
Neither does a five-week campaign help. In order to fill the space, in the past week parties have been engaging in the selective announcement of initiatives, always costing many billions of pounds, that are pieces of a jigsaw that they will not reveal in full for at least another week in a manifesto that few will read. Only one thing better than announcing something, and that’s announcing it twice.
But there is little doubt that the more significant development in the opening fortnight of this campaign, has been Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party’s declared retreat from Conservative held constituencies. I say ‘his Brexit Party’ because that is precisely what it is. The Party is not owned by its members, they are merely ‘registered supporters’ who have no say on party policy. Mr Farage is self-appointed rather than elected. He also chooses his party’s candidates.
In that sense his creation is profoundly undemocratic, which is a bit rich coming from someone who is against putting any proposed arrangement with the EU to a democratic test. But inconsistency never stopped a charlatan, a person that the OED describes deliciously as “a mountebank who descants volubly in the street”.
So, do not be surprised if Mr Farage, having vacated half the field, vacates the other half in the coming days. Presumably, never knowingly crestfallen, he will then loiter with intent determined, along with his co-belligerents in the Tory ERG, to ensure that a Johnson government does not go soft on Brexit.
Some will wonder who has capitulated, Mr Johnson or Mr Farage. The answer is that both have done so, but it is Mr Johnson’s capitulation that places the country at the greater risk. Mr Farage has merely sacrificed his party’s position. Mr Johnson is clearly willing to sacrifice the national interest.
By ruling out, at Mr Farage’s behest, any extension of a ‘transition period’ beyond the end of 2020, and by stating his preference for a ‘Super Canada plus’ deal Mr Johnson has committed himself to two incompatible objectives. Canada’s deal with the EU began with agreement on a framework in March 2004, although detailed negotiations were not launched until May 2009. Agreement in principle was reached in October 2013, but negotiations were not concluded until 1st August 2014.
Since all experts agree that a comparable deal between the EU and UK – let alone one warranting the adjective ‘Super’ – would be a much more challenging enterprise, to say that it could be concluded by the end of the 2020 is either a lie or a cruel joke.
The optimistic will have to rely on the fact that Mr Johnson’s views and statements are rarely definitive for, if he really means to stick to this, what he has done is to put ‘No deal’ back on the table. The House of Commons vote to reject a ‘No deal’ Brexit will be for naught. And that will be a catastrophe for Wales and the UK.
All this underlines just what is at stake in this election, and should put us on our guard against the phalanx of Brexit-related falsehoods coming our way: Get Brexit Done – a purported end that, in fact, would be only a beginning – a timetable that is a fiction, a deal that is not a deal but a collection of aspirations that even the government is not sure it shares.
The real objective in this election is not to Get Brexit Done, but to Get Brexit Gone – out of the way, off the agenda, best of all by the will of the people in a referendum. For it has been and continues to be a massive distraction from the true and manifold challenges that we face.
It is some years since we have seen parties vying with each other to spend money, and we will see where that bidding settles in the coming weeks. We certainly need to put a self-flagellating austerity behind us. We cannot hold back forever from investment in our infrastructure – in our hospitals, railways and schools. Neither should we continue to evade our responsibility to address the deficiencies in social care.
But that does not mean that easy times are around the corner. We will still be operating in a difficult economic climate, and a Brexit – particularly of the kind espoused by Nigel Farage and the ERG’s Steve Baker, Mark Francois and John Redwood, not to mention the ever-egregious Jacob Rees-Mogg – will be the heaviest possible drag-anchor against progress. It is the acceleration of such investment that will heal divisions and bring the country together, not Brexit. And it is parties who show they know that fact that will deserve our vote in this election.
This article previously appeared in the Western Mail on 15 November 2019
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