We have one major party that’s all style but no content, and another that’s all content but is unelectable, writes Joyce McMillan
The British media have a finely-tuned sense of priorities; and if there’s one subject that’s guaranteed to nudge its way into the headlines and news bulletins, even in the middle of a general election campaign, it’s the appointment of a new head judge for Strictly Come Dancing, the massively popular Saturday-night television show.
Yet while the nation digested the news that the new judge - replacing national treasure Len Goodman - is to be former Latin dance champion Shirley Ballas, I found myself thinking yearningly of the Strictly Come Dancing voting system, which combines public votes with expert input from a professional judging panel.
For if there is one thing that’s certain about the current general election campaign, it’s that any self-respecting panel considering questions of skill and flair would surely judge the performances of the various competitors as among the poorest ever seen in UK politics; and the competition as a whole as a slow-motion disaster, one of the most gruelling and disappointing of the last half-century.
To the right of us, after all, stands a Tory Party which invites us, more or less, to switch off our brains, and simply put our trust in the “strength and stability” of Theresa May, a woman with a poor and in some respects disgraceful record as Home Secretary, now elevated to the role of Prime Minister precisely because of her outstanding display of lack of principle on Brexit.
Asked to provide more detail on their vision for a future Brexit Britain, Tory politicians have actually been heard arguing that they cannot offer any such detail, without giving away the country’s Brexit negotiating position.
Just trust Theresa, they say, thereby dividing the UK instantly between those inclined to accept her as the new Boadicea, and those who feel, with some reason, that they would rather put their trust in a basking shark.
And then to the left of us - or at least some of us - stands a Labour Party equipped with some reasonably sensible and popular social-democratic policies, from rail re-nationalisation (not a big deal, since the Railtrack infrastructure is already back in public ownership) to a massive house-building programme, but which nonetheless remains “unelectable”, because it is divided from top to bottom over the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and cannot make up its mind about Brexit.
This week’s leak of the party’s draft manifesto is a case in point; nice policies, shame about the rank disunity at party headquarters that caused someone to try to wreck their launch.
So we have one major party that’s all Union Jack style but no content, and another that’s all content, but incapable of getting on to the floor without a fight in the ranks. And then we have the smaller parties, all of which seem to be in various degrees of major disarray, or mild distress.
The Liberal Democrats, like the SNP, are fast learning that Remain sentiment over the EU, while present, is somehow not strong enough to shift many votes.
The Greens are the one party whose longer view of our economic, environmental and resource future might seriously raise the level of the debate; yet they struggle to win the media coverage their growing presence in UK politics deserves, and in Scotland have just made the damaging decision to contest only three Westminster seats, at a time when every part of the country needs to hear their arguments.
And as for the SNP - well, they certainly were the nearest thing to an effective and articulate centre-left opposition party in the short Westminster parliament of 2015-2017.
But politics is a rough old game; and although the SNP would probably win a high mark for parliamentary performance from any impartial panel of judges, they seem about to receive what will be - at least by their own recent standards - a bit of a drubbing from some voters, for having the cheek to persist in pursuing their central policy of independence, after losing the 2014 referendum; the looming trauma of Brexit, it seems, is not a good enough excuse.
It is, of course, painful for any friend of progressive centre-left politics to see the SNP possibly losing ground to a Scottish Tory Party which has begun to make the SNP look like amateurs, when it comes to building electoral success entirely on identity politics.
Where Nicola Sturgeon has often said that she is interested in independence only as a mean to social-democratic ends, Ruth Davidson generally avoids saying anything at all about the policies of the UK Conservative party, perhaps knowing - at some level - that most of them are indefensible. Her only high-profile current policy is that she is passionately for the Union, regardless of the quality of any future UK government by which we might be ruled; and although, like all forms of fundamentalist nationalism, this is a dubious message, it is a clear one, which is striking a chord with significant numbers of voters.
So here we stand, at a uniquely grim moment in British politics for those who actually believe in peace, democracy, human rights and social justice, and care about constitutional futures only insofar as they deliver those ends. The UK-wide election offers a choice between reactionary British patriotism backed by creeping authoritarianism, and a bitterly divided centre-left that cannot win a majority. The Scottish election offers a choice between a completely vacuous Tory Unionism, and a tired social-democratic nationalism that - having defeated its old Labour enemy - finds that Scotland’s supposedly social-democratic culture may be vanishing with it. If I was head judge, I would probably order them all off the floor, and tell them to come back when they’ve worked out some more inspiring moves.
In a general election, though, the popular vote wins, after a fashion. And what we are likely to learn, this time round, is that parties that try to talk about our real possible futures are out of style - too complex, too demanding, too real; whereas those that just wrap themselves in a flag, and adopt a patriotic posture under the spotlight, are doing just fine - either with policies they barely dare to mention, or with no policies at all.