If all our politicians play it safe, who’ll be a Tony Benn 30 years from now?

Nick Clegg has started to look miserable at times during Prime Minister’s Questions and wears a tribal yellow tie, but that's about it in terms of political dissent

Share

The near-silence of senior politicians in August seems different from the rest of the year. Most ministers and their opponents are away and not saying much in public. But does this holiday month mark such a significant leap from the rest of the year? Have we moved seamlessly from noisy, assertive debate to fleeting tranquillity?

The answer to these questions is depressing. Of course, for the rest of the year ministers make statements and give interviews. Shadow ministers oppose. Leaders clash. But little of this hyperactivity is marked by loud, passionate debate. The distinctive characteristic of the Coalition of two parties is its calm. There have been no dramatic cabinet resignations on a matter of principle. Vince Cable is the nearest to an internal dissenter but he makes his moves discreetly, sometimes so subtly it is not easy to discern quite what form his social democratic vision would take. On the other side, the former cabinet minister Liam Fox makes speeches further to the right than the already right-wing policies implemented by the Coalition. But he makes the most of a freedom from collective responsibility that was imposed on him. His departure from the Cabinet had nothing to do with policy.

Elsewhere all is quiet from June to July as much as August. Nick Clegg has started to look miserable at times during Prime Minister’s Questions and wears a tribal yellow tie, compared with the early days when he could not hide his unbridled excitement at his new partnership with David Cameron. That is about it in terms of dissent.

On the Labour side, a similar mood has descended. Before the election, columnists were eagerly predicting meltdown if Labour lost. There has been no collapse. In public, so-called Blairites are as loyal as others. Privately, there is some debate on the role of the state, how best to reform public services and the direction of economic policy. A few senior Labour figures brief journalists that they are not happy, but listen carefully to what they say and their alternative route is vague, if it exists at all.

On one level, the public discipline, the eternal silence, is based on wholly rational calculations. Divided parties lose elections. In addition, one of Clegg’s objectives was to prove that coalitions work, in the sense that two parties can govern without falling out. On Labour’s side there is quite a hunger to return to power quickly. The 18 years of opposition from 1979 until 1997 still leave a mark. The youngish intake from 2010, at least those that are now on the front bench, yearn to be ministers. They are not there to shake things up.

Yet there is another side to politics, one that is much missed and partly explains the indifference of most voters. Politics should sparkle with passionate debate conducted by advocates who can mesmerise. It should do so especially in the era we are living through, one of tumultuous change reflected in the economic crisis and the prospect of two historic referendums, on independence for Scotland and on Europe.

Given that all three parties are now the broadest of broad churches, those debates should take place internally as well. Yet most senior figures opt for technocratic tedium. They play safe and stick to the party line. If their party is in power, they might manage a Whitehall department briefly, a career peak. Soon it is over, and they become largely anonymous figures in the Lords or earn a fortune in the private sector, sometimes both. If in opposition, the aim is to become one of the managerial ministers.

Voters might not care for party disunity, but they ache also for public figures who stand out from the crowd, speak their minds, have strong convictions. These are characters who may not wield much orthodox power. They make their moves without the active support of their leaders. But they remain endlessly fascinating and continue to attract attention. At this year’s Edinburgh Festival, the politicians who will pull in the crowds include Tony Benn, who is often blamed for Labour’s fatal divisions in the 1980s; Tom Watson, who resigned this summer from Labour’s front bench; and Chris Mullin, whose diaries mock the powerlessness of ministerial life. They are all very different, but no one can accuse them of entering politics for the near silence of managerial careerism.

Of that particular trio, Benn was much the most prominent and ambitious. He was the best orator I have witnessed, and some of his obsessions in the 1970s and 1980s are proving to be more fashionable now: the accountability of elected politicians; the lack of accountability in Europe and in big institutions such as the banks; the anachronistic absurdity of a non-elected second chamber. Benn is in his late eighties now, and frail, but he still packs them in. I cannot imagine, say, Philip Hammond filling halls in 30 years’ time or, indeed, now.

If voters are to pay attention, we need many more like this powerless trio packing them in at festivals. They bring politics to life. Those who are ambitious now should take note that while voters may disapprove of divided parties, they turn away completely from lifeless politics.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam