But he sang in his chains like the sea
Faced, somewhat unexpectedly, with having to write my last political column for The Spectator, I find I have become unchar- acteristically maudlin: signing off and thinking back is an opportunity to wonder about the point of people like me. It is not so much, as Lord Rosebery said of Lord Randolph Churchill, like being chief mourner at one's own protracted funeral, as being called upon to read the lesson at one's own memorial service.
I am not one of those pundits who believes that his words have some far- reaching impact, however upset I occasion- ally hear the Prime Minister has become at something I have written. Punditry, espe- cially in a civilised publication like this, seems to lie somewhere between light entertainment and after-dinner conversa- tion of an unacceptably one-sided nature. It never ceases to astonish me that all sorts of supposedly intelligent people, some of them in high public office, take some of what hacks like me write so painfully seri- ously. I cannot help thinking that, despite the hundreds of thousands of words we pour out, we often seem not to make a blind bit of difference. If we did, this partic- ular Government would have put the pearl- handled revolver to its temple years ago.
There is, though, one thing we do seem to have helped achieve in the last three years. Something has changed about our perceptions of politics and politicians, and perhaps we pundits have had a hand in it. When I first wrote here, three years ago, it was to describe a political landscape horri- bly similar to today's. The Conservative government was weak, unpopular and divided, and being slowly choked by diffi- culties of its own making. The Labour opposition was shallow, cautious, and doing its best to keep faction out of sight in preparation for what it considered to be its automatic victory at the next election. The Liberal Democrats, despite some local pyrotechnics, showed no convincing sign of the sort of revival needed to have a sniff of power. There was, however, one big differ- ence, and that was in how the public viewed their politicians. The decline of standards of public life may be a myth; standards have, possibly, always been that low. But what is new is the keenness with which the ordinary voter is aware of the deviousness and shamelessness in which his governors engage in his name. The press has, for once, played a creditable role in enlighten- ing the public on this.
The sense of disgust with those in public life can be traced back, I am sure, to one recent event in particular: the astonishing behaviour by senior members of the Gov- ernment, principally the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, at the time of Britain's ejection from the ERM in September 1992. Earlier that summer, when the pound was regularly pushing through the floor of the ERM, I had a conversation with one of Fleet Street's longest serving and most revered political editors. I remember him saying that, should the devaluation come, there could be no question of Mr Lamont's staying in office. He might be shuffled side- ways, as had happened to Mr Callaghan in 1967, or he might go altogether; but he would not survive as Chancellor. The party would not stand for it; the country would not stand for it. In my naïveté I was sure he was right and, indeed, comments made to me by ministers and backbenchers con- firmed me in that view.
We were all wrong. When Mr Lamont finally refused to endure one indignity too many, and chose to leave the Government rather than become Environment Secre- tary, he made a resignation statement that must count as one of the great moral sinks of modern politics. He had gone to see the Prime Minister after the ERM experiment had failed. Mr Major had told him that he was not going to resign, and saw no reason why Mr Lamont should either. There was to be no accountability in the traditional way that the British voters have come to expect of their politicians when a serious policy goes seriously wrong. Despite several hundred thousand people losing their jobs, tens of thousands of homes being repos- sessed and businesses going down the lava- tory all over Britain, not a word of apology was uttered. Indeed, the Government sought to claim credit for its forced exit from the mechanism. It might sound hard to describe this as the behaviour of the spiv and the confidence trickster, but few other terms do it justice.
When, today, ministers express bewilder- ment that the Government remains deeply unpopular despite improving economic cir- cumstances, the events of September 1992 subliminally offer themselves as an expla- nation. The incompetence of the ERM experiment was forgivable; we all make mistakes, even when huge numbers of peo- ple are giving us sound advice on how not to go wrong. What is unforgivable is the way the Government sought to brazen out the debacle as if none of it was any fault of theirs. Some say it would have been impos- sible for Mr Major to have apologised and to have retained his credibility; it is equally clear, though, that he has hardly retained his credibility by not apologising.
In the ERM mistake the Government was, of course, joined by the Labour Party, who were every bit as enthusiastic about it as Mr Major and Mr Lamont were. This harmony of view is typical of many policies, and is, apart from the moral contempt in which the Government is held, a principal reason for the decline in the Tory party's support. In many cases there simply is not a Conservative option left for people to vote for. There seems to be a unanimity of view about Europe, about the size and scope of the state, about welfare, about putting up taxes, about, it seems, almost all the most important questions facing the country. This will not necessarily serve the purposes of democracy, of which choice has always seemed to be an important part.
However, even if the Conservative Party started to be properly Conservative again it might make little difference, so long as so few voters can be prepared to take its most prominent members seriously. Only the other day a friendly Tory MP castigated me for helping to create a climate in which the public holds its politicians in such con- tempt. But then politicians should not give us so much ammunition; it amazes me not how pungent some of us have been about the conduct of government, but how restrained.
I am off to the Daily Telegraph; and on, as it were, a youth opportunities exchange scheme, Mr Boris Johnson of that newspa- per will be entertaining and conversing with you in my place. He may even be rude about a few politicians; having been a dis- tinguished Brussels correspondent, he has had plenty of practice. Thank you for your indulgence over the last three years. I shall miss you.