Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
I once attended a lecture given by the charismatic John Guillebaud, Emeritus Professor of family planning and reproductive health at UCL. He put up a slide of the elephant in the room. It depicted a board room, with a group of people gathered round a mahogany table and, beside it, dwarfing everything, a large elephant. It’s a farcical image. You could imagine yourself seated at the table, thinking, why is everybody pretending the elephant isn’t there? Am I imagining it? Should I mention it?
Prof Guillebaud is very interested in the potential effect of effective contraception on world population. I nearly juxtaposed the words “population” and “control” there but that is a great taboo for those in the west seriously interested in addressing the elephant in the room. It’s political dynamite. When war, famine, and rising sea levels cause people to drift across the Mediterranean it is much easier for the PM to emerge from a meeting in Brussels and say, “We’re going to put a stop to this by blowing up the traffickers’ boats.”
But I digress. The elephant in the room this week is of course the General Election. There are three topics to be avoided in polite middle class discourse – sex, religion, and politics. Have you experienced that rueful feeling when you come away from a social gathering where you have indulged in some robust conversation, grown a little impassioned, perhaps even intemperate, and departed with a vague sense of free floating anxiety? “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” Last September before the Scottish Referendum I would go to dinner parties, talk about the weather, and ignore the elephant in the room.
Joe Epstein, one of the founding fathers of emergency medicine in Australasia, another charismatic speaker, used to give the following advice to those of us involved in the furthering of emergency medicine amid the tribal collegiate turf wars of the medical colleges: don’t be seduced into a fruitless argument with somebody whose entrenched views you will never change. That is pretty much a description of a political leaders’ debate. Have you ever seen a politician on Question Time listen to an opponent and say, “That’s a good point; I never thought of it that way; you’ve changed my mind”? Last night on the news I caught a snatch of conversation from a bitter and acrimonious encounter in Edinburgh. One of the party leaders said to another, “Are you calling me a liar?” It’s excruciating. I switched off. I’m rationing myself. Only three days of campaigning left to endure.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m going to stick my neck out and make a prediction. I think Mr Cameron is going to get a second term. He’s the incumbent; and he’s stuck with it.
This opinion is entirely non-partisan. It’s based on the “Red Lines” everybody has started drawing. Mr Cameron won’t lead a government that is not offering an in-out EU referendum; and Mr Miliband won’t have any truck with the SNP. Politicians aren’t usually that specific. They usually leave themselves some wriggle room. This is all very mysterious. And now Mr Miliband has come out with his six policy statements, “A better plan, a better future”. And he has, literally, set them in stone, with a pledge to implant them, like a Henge, in the back garden of No 10. I list them here in full, and ask you to examine them, not so much as a student of politics, but as a literary critic. Examine them the way F R Leavis, at his most ferocious, might have done so.
- A strong economic foundation.
- Higher living standards for working families.
- An NHS with time to care.
- Controls on immigration.
- A country where the next generation can do better than the last.
- Houses to buy and action on rents.
Who would not buy into all that? But then again, it’s so abstract as to be completely meaningless. If Mr Miliband were running for the Presidency of the USA he might as well have run on a “mom and apple pie” ticket. We might invoke Leavis’ accusation against Shelley and his “weak grasp upon the actual”. Isn’t it ironic that something as non-concrete as “A better plan, a better future” should be set in stone? There isn’t a policy or a pledge in there. Scrap Trident, or even Keep Trident – these are pledges. Mr Miliband’s limestone menhir is completely vapid. He must know it. We all know it. So here’s the question. In this day and age when the voting public have become profoundly suspicious of gimmickry, and when they have grown to admire certain women politicians who “talk normal” and espouse clearly defined policies, why on earth would Mr Miliband choose to insult everybody’s intelligence?
The only rational explanation I can find is that he has decided the top job is such a poisoned chalice that he doesn’t want it. Maybe he knows the “recovery” is a figment, and that, if Mr Balls were to walk into No 11, he might find a note: “There is no money.”
Mr Cameron doesn’t want to lead a coalition again. “Been there, done that, got the T shirt.” But he may have no choice.
There is one alternative scenario: On Friday morning Mr Miliband has a slight attack of post traumatic amnesia – I’m leaving myself some wriggle room. After all it’s not going to contradict anything carved on his Henge. So he talks to the other progressive parties. Including the elephant in the room: