7 June 2017

This election is an existential battle


This is an existential election, by which I mean it isn’t one of those doesn’t-really-matter choices, a poll to nudge the country a millimetre Left or Right. Spending the week in Scotland brought this home to me.

It’s an existential election because a Corbyn government would be a complete break from anything hitherto seen in the era of universal suffrage: this would not be the same country that it was prior to June 8.

You can’t hang about with people who approve of the slaughter of Jews, for example, and then come across as reassuring. And it would take more than another champagne-fuelled, quick-fire report from Baroness Chakrabarti of Whitewash to make Corbyn’s allies smell suitable for public office.

There’s a scene in that old Potter play, “Vote, vote, vote for Nigel Barton”, in which Nigel (the Labour candidate in a by-election) silently seethes as his Tory opponent offers platitudes about how, even though he and Nigel represent different parties, they are united in their loyalty to the Crown.

Well, we know that Corbyn, like Potter’s character, would offer no such reassurance to the millions of people who won’t vote for him. Not singing the national anthem would be the least of it; Corbyn’s Britain would be Venezuela without the sunshine. As I say: an existential election.

And not one that, on the whole, British Tories have proved good at fighting. Whatever her other creditable attributes, Theresa May has seemed incapable of responding quickly to the new dynamic which grips the media narrative — that of a Labour Party on the rise.

I’m not attacking the Crosby attack ads — they’re excellent, because they’re true — but I could have done with seeing some, dare I say, Cameronian eloquence from the Prime Minister a little bit more quickly. We know (thanks to her response to the London Bridge atrocities) that the passion is there. I wish she had showed more of it: a Corbyn government is a sufficiently awful prospect to demand it.

Things were different in Scotland. I spent a couple of days this week delivering Tory leaflets in the pouring rain in the Perth & North Perthshire constituency and unlike south of the border, this wasn’t a Tory campaign in crisis mode. Scottish Tory tails are up.

Of course, there’s Ruth to thank for that. The first thing you notice up here is that Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, has insulated Scottish Conservatives from the worst of the national campaign’s mis-steps.

Indeed, she has up-ended every consensus about Scottish politics, beating Labour in election after election. She has done so not by mouthing platitudes, but by speaking eloquently and passionately on behalf of a group of the population — whether Labour, Liberal or Tory by inclination — for whom the SNP doesn’t bother to hide its contempt: the majority who wish to be Scottish and British; the Unionists.

But there’s more to the energy among Scottish Conservatives than just the “Ruth” effect. The reason for their relative cheer, I would suggest, is that Scottish Tories are used to fighting existential elections, are used to taking the argument to insurgent opponents, opponents with a vicious online army and starry-eyed allies in the arts establishment. Opponents who seek not simply to govern (indeed, the SNP gives the distinct impression of not being interested in governing at all) but who want power only in order to change the very nature of the country, for ever. Remind you of anyone?

A Tory campaign manager told me that in Scotland the choice isn’t between Left and Right, but between Separatism and Union. Maybe, and maybe people who aren’t natural Tories will vote Conservative in Thursday simply to reject the SNP’s vision (some of the leaflets I delivered specifically asked that people “lend their vote” to the Scottish Conservatives, in order to deny Sturgeon another referendum).

But in that very existential battle is where a new politics of Left and Right will be forged: every country’s politics, outside of periods of upheaval, is a balance between control and liberty, manifest through various strands of various parties. And I don’t believe that once the SNP’s ideology is defeated — this time, indeed, for a generation — that the voters who “lent” Ruth their support will melt away.

There’s still time for Theresa May to make the analogous point. It’s not morally good enough to say “Oh, yeuch, Jeremy Corbyn”, but still to vote Labour anyway, in the hope that something other than the obvious outcome will come along. Labour MPs are adopting this tactic; I suppose they have to. But no one else does. “Everyone who detests Corbynism,” the Prime Minister should say: “Lend me your vote.”

We cast our votes, and each of them points in our own unique direction — somewhere between Left and Right — but the overall result isn’t what I want, or what you want, or even what Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn wants. The outcome is the sum of all those individual arrows — the “resultant”, as mathematicians would put it — the vector sum of all those individual votes pointing the country into its next phase of existence.

If the arrow tilts towards Labour this time — if May lets people vote Labour tomorrow without asking them to think through the consequences — then the resultant is a break with the country you thought you knew and loved.

Ruth knows about elections with such all-or-nothing outcomes. Whatever the result tomorrow, I hope No 10 (and Lynton Crosby) learn from her example.

Graeme Archer is a political commentator and statistician