Authoritarian styles can come at cost. The manner with which the British Prime Minister has reacted to the concept of debate has been one such point. While the joys of the Westminster system hardly suggest untrammelled enlightenment, one superficial element remains: the need to debate policies.
Having called an election, the pollster community were more or less suggesting Theresa May could sit back and shut-up with disdainful reclusiveness. A victory with a majority of 100 seats would be netted and British Labour would suffer their worst electoral showing in generations.
As ever, the pollster community can no longer be said to be a uniform gaggle, having been pummelled by the remorseless wheels of history. One has decided to buck the trend: should current trends continue as they are, the May government could face a hung parliament, and the distinctly anti-British turn of negotiating with minor parties. The Corbynistas, it seems, were gaining.
The debate showing was poor, largely because the PM decided to send a proxy in her stead, Home Secretary Amber Rudd. The other parties were hardly worth a jotting. Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron was in stern mood: “How dare you call an election and then run away from the debate?”
The Greens co-leader Caroline Lucas also posited some guidelines of leadership: “the first rule of leadership is to show up – you don’t say it’s the most important election of our lifetime and not be bothered to show up.”
But May has not so much running away as simply ignoring the convention of a debate format that is held in such high esteem in the United States. “I don’t think seven politicians arguing among themselves is that interesting or revealing.” For the PM, there really is nothing worth talking about, though it is evident that members of her party are getting rattled. This lady has been for turning from the start, and nerves are showing.
In a separate event organised by the BBC Question Time program, May faced her own set of questions from a selected audience. She found in it a chance to stress that she had “absolute, resolute determination to respect the will of the British people.”
She then trained her rhetorical guns on the Corbyn option. Imagine, she posed, the nightmare of a government that would include “Diane Abbott, who can’t count, John McDonnell, a Marxist, propped up by Nicola Sturgeon, who wants to break-up the UK, and Tim Farron, who wants to go back into the EU.”
On money, May proved conventionally Tory, and brutal. There was little time for that old canard of compassionate conservatism in the face of indignant teachers and nurses. A cap of 1 per cent on annual public sector pay rises was justified, despite not keeping up with the rate of inflation, since public money had to be “managed carefully”. Her opponents seemed to believe, by way of contrast, in “a magic money tree”, one that could be repeatedly plucked and raided.
In the 45-minute show, May insisted that “the only poll that matters is the one that takes place on polling day”. Few could disagree with that putative fact, though it also chimes with a certain long yawn shown by the prime minister of late.
This sheer indifference has seen May do a set of U-turns on various policies, be it the issue of Brexit, which she campaigned against, or raising the National insurance for self-employed workers, which effectively amounted to a repudiation of the Tory position on raising taxes. Few will forget that other corker of a turn: the steadfast refusal to hold an election without first serving a full term. Robotically, continues to adjust gears and alter course as needed.
Corbyn’s own set of questions from the Question Time crowd also had their element of discomfort, though they did draw out old principles. He reiterated a certain doubt about using Britain’s Trident missiles, even in the event of the country being subjected to “imminent threat from nuclear weapons”. He preferred “negotiation and talks” to existential annihilation. “If we did use it, millions would die.” The current UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, found such an attitude “chilling”.
For all that, Corbyn had to concede to internal defeat, having lost the debate within his party on the renewal of the Trident option. The Labour Party is hardly a collective for peace, and fantasies involving nuclear holocaust remain wedded to the Union Jack and patriotic self-worth. Even faded dreams need their weapons.
A May Britain will continue looking bleak and squalid, but it will continue being British. The only thing left for the prime minister as she goes forth hoping that Labour’s momentum weakens is to wish that others fail. Such a Tory strategy has worked before, and may well work again.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org