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Bourgass Politics
The state of the British elections.


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John O’Sullivan

My apologies to those readers who have been waiting keenly for the latest episode of this election diary (Mother!) and who are getting it two days late. Unfortunately, quite a lot has been happening in the world–or not unfortunately since I make my living writing about these events. The election of Pope Benedict XVI, on which I have an op-ed in today’s New York Post, soaked up the time I had set aside to write up the diary. And I am only now able to return to the very muted fray of the British election.

Let me give a brief recap of the trends of the last few days–and then focus on a few issues:

1. The polls are all over the place, but they seem to show a slight trend towards Labor since the previous week. But no party has anything like a majority. A consensus of polls would suggest that Labor has something like 36-39 percent, the Tories 33-36 percent, and the Lib-Dems a very steady 22 percent. Odd though it seems, if those were the final results, they would represent a sharp swing from Labor to the Tories. My own highly unscientific instinct is that the Tories will do better than the polls suggest, but not well enough to win. The media atmosphere is so hostile to them that some supporters are probably telling pollsters they are Don’t Knows.

2. Voters are unenthusiastic about all parties, and nothing much in the campaign itself explains Labor’s continued dominance in the polls. It is almost certainly the result of the uninterrupted thirteen years of economic growth. I examine this in my forthcoming NR piece. Suffice it to say here that Labor is getting undue credit for a boom that is due much more to the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s and the fiscal stabilization carried through in 1992-93 by the Tory Chancellor, Norman Lamont than to anything done by Labor. Lamont himself is enjoying something of an resurrection in public esteem. After years of being somewhat unfairly blamed for “Black Wednesday” (when the pound fell out of the European exchange realignment mechanism), he is now seen as having laid the fiscal foundations for the long boom. A pamphlet by the director of the Center for Policy Studies and The Economist’s election briefing both described his economic stewardship in glowing terms. The only people who don’t seem to have noticed his rising stock are those who have most to gain from it–namely, the Tories.

3. An interesting critique of the Tories from the Right began to appear in the weekend papers, and it has gathered steam since then across the board. Essentially, it points out that the Tory plans for public spending and taxation differ so little from Labor’s that they amount to an acceptance of New Labor’s shift from a Thatcherite economy of low public spending to a social democratic one. According to both an editorial and an op-ed (by a young libertarian journalist, Fraser Nelson) in the indispensable “Sunday Business,” public spending as a percentage of GDP is rising so rapidly on present trends–i.e. from 37 percent in 1997 to 42 percent today–that it will shortly meet Germany’s total as it is brought down. At present Labor’s projections for total U.K. public spending in 2007-2008 amount to approximately $1,100 billion of which the Tories plan to cut about $22 billion. Even the left media is being scornful about that. Rumors are that some Tories would like a much more ambitious program of tax and spending cuts. At this point in the election campaign, however, a major shift of policy is not really possible.

4. What this means is that on the central tax-and-spending issue, the Tories are offering very little change. There is a sort of policy vacuum at the heart of their appeal. They try to fill it in three ways: First, they try to pitch what small tax reductions they offer ($7.5 billion in total) in eye-catching ways (tax incentives for pensions–on which Labor is vulnerable); second, they seek to prove that public services have declined badly under Labor and that the Tories will do better–e.g., “cleaner hospitals”: and third, they raise the hot-button issues of crime and immigration where the government has a very poor record and the public is angry. On this last they are running up against the liberal prejudices of the chattering classes and the media. Hence two of the three episodes below:

The Kamel Bourgass trial has been an interesting test of attitudes to the immigration question. Broadly speaking, in Britain and in the U.S., support for high levels of immigration is an almost dislodgeable elite prejudice, while polls suggest that three quarters of the voters favor lower numbers and more effective controls.

Bourgass was an illegal immigrant. He was part of a terrorist cell that may or may not have been linked to al Qaeda. He was planning to extract the poison, ricin, from various everyday groceries and spread it by rather primitive methods around the area where he lived. (Ricin destroys the immune system and usually causes death within days.) When the police went to arrest him (on a distinctly botched operation), he stabbed and killed a young detective.

This sequence of events is damaging to the government in general–and helpful to the Conservatives in particular. Bourgass was twice arrested and, as an illegal immigrant, ought to have been deported. Two opportunities to deport him arose–neither was acted on. In one, the immigration service was told of his status when he was arrested for shoplifting, but no official turned up in court on the day of his trial. As a result a decent man is now dead. Since the Tories have focussed on exactly this kind of outrage and made illegal immigration a main plank in their campaign, they are entitled to claim vindication. But this “chattering classes” are deeply reluctant to grant it. They have been wittering on for weeks about how the Tory stress on immigration is shameful, indecent, squalid, etc., etc., and also counterproductive. They want to persuade the Tories that they will lose votes over the issue and so should abandon it. That is nonsense, of course. The Tories may well lose this election, but not because of the one topic on which they enjoy a commanding lead over Labor in public opinion.

How different newspapers deal with the Bourgass story, however, has been very revealing of social attitudes and of journalistic honesty. The tabloid newspapers–which cater to Middle England–are all over this story. They give clear, detailed, and accurate accounts of what happened and of the failures of the immigration system that made it possible. Ditto the Daily Telegraph which gives the story a dramatic page-one headline. Ditto the Daily Mail which has a very fine step-by-step report of the way in which Bourgass avoided deportation. But the Times–which has been sucking up to New Labor in general and denouncing the Tories’s low exploitation of immigration–exiled the story to page six where it became the scandal of the Tories attempting to exploit the crime for political gain! Image the horror of it–an opposition party exploiting a scandal of government inaction that led to a murder! And doing so for political gain!

It must be said, however, that BBC News outdid even the Times. In its extensive report of the Bourgass trial, it somehow failed to mention that he was an illegal immigrant at all. In a defensive statement later the Beeb acknowledged that its news report should have included a line about Bourgass’s illegal status but that it had “tried to focus on the wider terrorist threats to Europe…rather than going into detail on the asylum issue.”

This must be the first time that terrorism has been used as a cover.

I ran into an old friend and former colleague in the parliamentary press gallery at a dinner party the other night. Andrew Alexander was a very fine parliamentary sketchwriter in the Seventies. But he left parliamentary reporting to become a successful financial editor of the Daily Mail. Today he writes a weekly column for the Mail where he mixes dry wit with ice-cold conservative reasoning to make an excellent opinion cocktail.

Andrew arrived having just written his column. So we got an entertaining preview.

The Tory tax cuts, he had calculated, would be equal to a mere two percent of government spending. They would come into effect a year after the election. They would be the full extent of Tory tax cutting for that parliament. (They seem to have boxed themselves in here in order to completely refute the Labor charge of a “hidden Tory agenda.”) And if you take expected inflation into account, the end result would be less than one penny in the pound (or one cent in the dollar) off the income-tax rate. Andrew felt it hardly seemed worth an election. And his view probably reflects the views of many of the Tory party’s middle-class supporters. Not all, of course, since others are mainly concerned with the improvement of the public health and education services. In order to please the latter, the Tories have both matched (or exceeded) Labor’s spending on these services and proposed only the most minor reforms in them. Not only has that meant trivial proposals to cut tax, but it has also left the Tories unable to benefit politically from the continued failure of these services. They will be equally hard-pressed to gain political kudos from the fiscal crisis predicted by the NHS when it eventually arrives. No crisis can confirm warnings that were never made.

Some years ago, the novelist Kingsley Amis was drinking in the green room before a television program when an interviewer wandered over to chat. He recognized Kingsley as a regular performer, assumed his like-mindedness, and spoke to him as an equal. Looking around, he asked: “Who’s the Tory twit tonight, then?” To be the Tory twit on television is to have the assumptions stacked against you.

In current jargon, it is to swim upstream against the progressive consensus. Kingsley, who was the Tory twit on that night, rather enjoyed juggling with assumptions, turning them inside out and upside down and then ramming them down the interviewer’s throat. But Michael Howard, who last night had to play the Tory twit in ITV’s Ask Michael Howard, the first of three weekly television programs in which the party leaders are interviewed by Jonathan Dimbleby and questioned by a cross-section of voters, is more emollient. He wears down his antagonists by patient reasonableness. Even so, he would have been justified in feeling a little under pressure from the weight of progressive assumptions last night. To begin with, two-thirds of the one-hour program was devoted to immigration and asylum. This was doubtless designed to suggest public disquiet and the vigilance of television. Yet it was unbalanced and gave a false impression of the overall Tory case. If two-thirds of the Tory manifesto had been devoted to the same topics, an explosion of media suspicion would have greeted Howard’s sinister “obsession.” Then the first questions suggested that the Tory party was exploiting “fear.” This was assumed without question to be wicked. But the fear that terrorists such as Kamel Bourgass might enter Britain illegally in order to harm us is a reasonable one. Politicians have a responsibility to deal with it. And no one suggests that all fears, e.g., of nuclear war or AIDS, should be ignored or damped down. It is only popular fears that might help the Tores that invite these calls to limit debate.

Finally, the question was raised in a contorted way whether it was “racist” to discuss immigration at all. It might all have been very stressful. But Howard took it in his stride. At no point was he wrong-footed, embarrassed, made angry, or caught out not knowing some important point. He avoided sharp retorts like the American conservative’s definition of a racist as “someone winning an argument with a liberal.” And he was pleasant, courteous, and indulgent to the most irritating questioner.

The emotional temperature gradually fell. Was Howard perhaps a little too reasonable? There were times when I would have welcomed a small outburst of anger or irritation. At one point, Dimbleby quoted a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees saying that they could never deal with a government that had withdrawn from the U.N. convention of refugees. Here was a chance for the Tory leader to declare firmly that Britain is a democratic self-governing country and that we would do what we thought right even if a U.N. agency disagreed. But he gave a quieter response about being sure the UNHCR would in the end cooperate with an elected British government.

The emotional temperature fell still further in the final 20 minutes when the topics were health, education, and taxes. By the end, the Tory twit’s answers got noticeably more applause than the points made by hostile questioners. Skillfully though Howard disarmed his critics, however, a problem remained. As usual with such programs, the person being questioned is always on the defensive. He is never able to argue the positive case for his policy in a straightforward way. He spends all his time explaining why his policy is not a bad thing rather than why it is a good one. That may be good television, but it is not good politics.



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