Monday 30 March 2015

Why the election 'debate' was so dull

I watched the so-called debate that wasn't a debate with rising incredulity that any two men aspiring to the highest office in the last should be quite so dull and predictable.  The only element that was less predictable was Ed Miliband's unexpectedly human smile.

I don't know if it was authentic or not, but it came across as such - and I'm sure it lies behind his sudden rise in the polls.  But let's face it - it wasn't much.

I've been thinking about the political offering for next month's election and it really is staggeringly uninspiring.  Then I read the column in the Financial Times (thanks again, Joe) which talked about a similar disconnect in Washington - the growing gulf between the new thinking of Silicon Valley and precisely the opposite in Washington.

This is how Edward Luce put it:

"Every week, some audacious start-up aims to exploit the commercial potential of science. Many are too zany to succeed. A few will deserve to. Every week, it seems, a presidential campaign is launched. Some of the 2016 candidates are actively hostile to science. None, so far, have hinted at original ideas for fixing America’s problems. One will undeservedly succeed. The root of America’s intellectual disconnect is cultural. In Silicon Valley, “fail harder” is a motto. A history of bankruptcy is proof of business credentials. In Washington, a single miscue can ruin your career..."

We don't have the same extremes in the UK.  We don't have fundamentalist anti-science candidates for prime minister.  We don't have Silicon Valley mavericks either, except perhaps clustered around Silicon Roundabout and one or two other places.

But the basic division is horribly familiar.  It is as if UK politicians regard their failure to propose anything new as a demonstration of their fitness for office.  It makes them safer from Paxman of course, but also perhaps insulates them from each other.  They are dull enough to be safe.  It is the besetting sin of the British political elite.

On the one hand, we have the Conservatives failing to reveal where they are going to save huge sums form the welfare budget, as they say they will.  On the other hand, we have Labour wrapping themselves in the NHS, complaining about all those elements - outsourcing, PFI contracts - which they did so much in the 13 years to 2010 to encourage.

On the one hand, we have the English nationalists, on the other hand the Scottish nationalists.  Nationalists believe in a thoroughly old idea - nations - and seem to be muddled by the modern world in which the lines between foreigners and everyone else get blurred.

I am biased in favour of the Lib Dems, of course.  The pupil premium, the Green Investment Bank and free school meals as a means of socialisation - those are all new ideas, at least for the UK, and ones to be proud of.  But they played little part in the last election, which makes me wonder whether the list of those groups of people who really find new thinking pretty irrelevant, and rather inconvenient, should also include political correspondents.

It is the clash of slogans that interests them, and the more familiar the slogans the happier they are.

Nor are the Lib Dems thinking much at the moment, except for the narrowest policy opportunities.  Big thoughts are dangerous, but they need not worry - nobody in government has big thoughts any more.  There isn't any time to have them.

So there is a dilemma here.  The nation needs the Lib Dems in government like never before.  But the Lib Dems need a period in opposition if they are going to start thinking again.  It is hard to know quite what to wish for most fervently.

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