Since I suggested last July that Theresa May, newly anointed as leader of the Conservative and Unionist party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, should call an election to both establish her own legitimacy and allow the country an argument over the kind of Brexit it preferred, it would be unseemly to now deplore her belated decision to go to the country.
Happily, there remain many other things that may be deplored. Far from the least of these is the manner in which the Prime Minister has made her case for an election. It’s not her fault, you see, that she has (correctly, in my view) gone back on her word. She remains a pretty straight kinda gal, you know. It’s just that the beastly opposition – who contrive, strangely, to be simultaneously hopeless and appallingly obstructive – have forced her to call an election and win a landslide victory. If you are not enthused by the prospect of an election, don’t blame Mrs May, blame the opposition.
As it happens, I fancy most voters can easily reconcile themselves to a fresh election, appreciating that there is something in it for most parties. The Tories will win the majority they would likely have won in 2020 anyway, Labour can begin to imagine the possibility of the post-Corbyn era, and the Lib Dems can return to some measure of prominence because, actually, they now have something to say and a constituency plausibly interested in hearing it.
Still, there was something grubby about May’s election announcement. Apparently, ‘there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division’. And there was me thinking that was an integral part of the great British democratic bunfight that’s the envy of the world? Evidently not. The opposition’s duty lies in meekly surrendering to the government of the day and to hell with the consequences.
It’s true that few Home Secretaries leave that office without succumbing to at least a mild case of authoritarianism and Mrs May appears determined to leave that rule unbucked. The country accepts, for the most part, that Brexit must indeed mean Brexit but the precise terms of that remain a matter of entirely legitimate – indeed, essential – discussion and, yes, division. The Prime Minister asks for a blank cheque while refusing to say what she will spend the people’s trust – and votes – on. There is something risible about that.
And there is something contemptible about the Brexiteer determination that any questioning, any scrutiny, any doubting amounts to ‘talking Britain down’ or hoping that the government receives a bloody nose during the Brexit negotiations. I concede there is a strain of Remainer opinion that will struggle to hide a measure of satisfaction should that happen but it would be a mistake to assume this is a widespread, or popular, sentiment. Most people, rightly, accept that even if Brexit is a bad job, the best possible job must be made of it.
That’s not enough for the Brexiteer fury chimps, however. They must have total victory or else. Dissent is not merely objectionable, it is perilously close to treasonous. No wonder the Daily Mail – increasingly, it seems, run by the kinds of men who bark at strangers on buses – can scarcely contain its ejaculatory excitement at the prospect of seeing all these ‘saboteurs’ crushed.
I put it to you that if Scottish Nationalists or their media cheerleaders behaved in this fashion we should consider them off their rockers. And of course sometimes Scottish nationalists and their media cheerleaders do behave in this fashion.
Admittedly, some of us who are past-masters at ‘talking Scotland down’ now enjoy the prospect of taking those talking-down skills to the larger, British, stage. Nonetheless, if there is something contemptible about the SNP’s rhetoric when it comes to these matters there must be something equally contemptible about the Conservative party’s uncannily similar rhetoric. Theresa May and the Conservative party are no more the United Kingdom than Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are Scotland.
Scarcely a week passes at Holyrood without Ms Sturgeon demanding that her opponents just shut-up, do the decent thing, and rally to support SNP policy. It doesn’t much matter what the policy is, the opposition should remember their place (they lost the election, don’t you know!) and pipe down. If you dislike this kind of thing – and you should – it should be hard to like it when the Conservatives and Mrs May play the same game, supported by the same framing of the matter.
Increasingly, however, one may look from SNP to Tory and back again and find it harder than ever to discern the difference between the way they behave and the way they talk. Mrs May says ‘Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain’ just as Ms Sturgeon argues that every vote for the SNP makes her stronger when she’s ‘standing-up’ for Scotland.
Well, no. Actually, it does not. Dissenting voices, even mistaken ones, are still permitted. To oppose is not to betray; there is no requirement to shuffle quietly into line and do as you are told. And if you deplore one flag-waving, nationalist, government that seeks to shame its opponents into silence you should at least think about deploring another flag-waving, nationalist, government that seeks to shame its opponents into silence.
Like the SNP however, the Brexiteers cannot tolerate any dissent. They see a hamster and think it an elephant. It might be comical if it weren’t also so grubby and, in the end, just a little sad.