Australia holds its general election on Saturday, but anyone fretting about having failed to immerse themselves in the finer points of that country’s muscular political culture may set their minds at rest. We seem to be in the midst of a long-range Australian election campaign over here.
Whether or not that former possession offers a template to be welcomed, the Australiasation of Westminster politics speeds alarmingly along distasteful twin tracks. One is the Aussie penchant, pioneered by the repugnant John Howard 12 years ago, and endorsed by Saturday’s likely winner Tony Abbot, who has been ratcheting up the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric, of winning elections by being poisonous to immigrants. The other, prosecuted by so many Australian politicos over recent decades, is importing the argot, mores and sensiblities of the saloon bar brawl into the political system.
The extent to which David Cameron’s hiring of Lynton Crosby, the fag company lobbyist who moonlights as Tory election supremo, has accelerated this process is hard to gauge. Mr Crosby is one of those figures who, by operating in the dark, tempts you to ascribe more influence and sinister methods to him than perhaps he strictly deserves.
He is widely credited, it is true, with fashioning the policy of refusing to allow a Norwegian vessel full of sick and desperate Afghan refugees to enter Australian waters which in 2001 won Mr Howard an election he had seemed certain to lose. Yet it would be unfair to extrapolate from an allegation he denies, and assume he was the genius behind the recent deployment of vans, in six London boroughs, targeting the message “Go Home” at illegal immigrants. Equally, it would be fanciful to read too much into the revelation that, while running Boris Johnson’s triumphant mayoral reelection campaign, he ranted about “fucking Muslims”.
Even so, since his arrival at Mr Cameron’s right hand a few months ago, one has sensed a more brutal edge to the Conservative operation which reached a new pitch of aggression last week. First, it emerged that Craig Oliver, the PM’s director of communications, communicated No 10’s feelings about Ed Miliband’s refusal to endorse the bombing of Syria with admirable directness. The Labour leader, Mr Oliver remarked in a briefing, was not only “a fucking cunt”, but also – and if anyone knows the relevance of that highly conductive metal in the waste product context, let me know; it’s been perplexing me for years – “a copper-bottomed shit”. All very Canberra, where the most high-minded forensic gambit is believed to be one party leader yelling “You stink” at another during a debate, but quite a novelty here in Blighty.
And then, lest the Muthah of Parliaments should feel neglected by such earthiness, Michael Gove went what he would describe as “bonkeroony” immediately after the Syria vote. Admittedly, the Education Secretary did not eff and cee at the Labour benches. He confined himself to screaming “You’re a disgrace, you’re a disgrace”, and left it to Labour’s defence spokesman Jim Murphy to unleash “industrial language” in response.
Yesterday, a becalmed Mr Gove saw fit to explain himself, though rather than apologise, amazingly enough, he sought to make a virtue of the outburst. He was driven to it, he told the BBC, solely by sympathy for the victims of the Assad regime’s alleged slaughter by poison gas. I am sure Mr Gove does feel deeply about this, but it is his judgement rather than his sincerity that’s in question. However livid at the loss of a vote he reportedly did much to bounce the PM into holding, alongside his fellow founder member of the Neo-Con Nostalgists’ Club, George Osborne, he should have been capable of grasping that he has no monopoly on compassion; that voting against punishing those who killed children by killing more children need not be an expression of callous indifference.
Even a year ago, one suspects, he would have grasped this perfectly well, and behaved himself. If a man as generally thoughtful, intelligent and mannerly as Mr Gove now feels emboldened to act like a partisan football fan – the very charge he made, in a classic show of projection, against the cheering Labour benches – something at Westminster must have changed.
Every manner of rudery and nastiness has always bubbled away beneath the surface of the parliamentary pond, as it has in every political institution in history. No doubt someone sidled up to Demosthenes in ancient Athens, and warned him that unless he kept his mouth shut, they would stick those fucking pebbles so far down his throat that he’d be practising his demotic skills out of his arse. But a top Downing Street operative calling an Opposition leader “a fucking cunt”, and a Cabinet minister shrieking “you’re a disgrace” in the chamber itself, feels new.
In fairness to Mr Crosby, the descent into the bear pit began before his annointment as Electoral Messiah. For years, Ed Balls and George Osborne have relegated debates on matters of the utmost economic significance to a battle of retarded egos, hissing babyish accusations at one another, and in Mr Balls’s case habitually confusing the post of Shadow Chancellor for a chance to challenge for a Guinness Book of World Records berth as the planet Earth’s least witty comedy-club heckler.
Whether this viciousness is the result of the tight parliamentary arithmetic, or the predominance of fortysomething politicians infantilised by having spent their entire careers closeted in and cosseted by the boarding school atmosphere of Westminster, or a combination of both, is beyond me. It may even be osmotically connected to the general decline in civility often sourced to the imperium of Twitter, to which Mr Gove’s wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, took on Thursday night to berate those who voted against bombing Syria for “cowardice”.
If a part of me welcomes this burgeoning contempt for the traditional courtesies, it is neither for the empathetic passion Mr Gove asks us to celebrate in himself, nor for any affirmation that the Commons has roused itself from the coma of the Labour years to become a functioning democratic body again. It is that part of me relishes a mass brawl on the football field, and Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear lobe, and feels a pompous fraud for denying the enjoyment. We all love a ruck and a slice of melodrama. Yet much the larger part of me finds it depressing to watch British politics, at a time of monumental challenges both domestically and abroad, slide into the ocker abyss.
Much has been written in recent days about the political class’s continuing paralysis as it tries to decide if it wants Britain to be the 51st state or a European social democracy. With the ever more grotesque bullying of immigrants and the wretchedly embarrassing name-calling, the de facto truth is that it is looking further afield to Australia, and nothing good can possibly come of that.