Right up till 15th April, it looked like the results of the general election were going to be one of two dreary prospects:
- Either Labour was going to remain in power with a bare majority, and we would see five more years of the same kind of no-risk party government as we saw under John Major (who won the 1992 general election with a margin so narrow that without the Ulster Unionists he couldn’t have stayed in power);
- or the Conservatives would win majority (which of course they could still do, even if a majority of voters in the UK clearly reject their policies – see Johann Hari on the forces that block British democracy) and we’d be in for five years of right-wing government.
Then for the first time in the UK, there was a prime ministerial debate, and, even though no one seriously expected a LibDem victory (ten days ago? they didn’t stand a chance: they have 63 seats in the Commons, and they had a hopeful list of 30 constitutencies which they were hoping they could flip from Labour or from Conservative – I live in one of them, and I didn’t think they had a realistic chance here) they very properly invited Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader, to stand with Gordon Brown and David Cameron. (And I bet Brown and Cameron are both wishing they’d said no to Clegg.)
Because Nick Clegg won the debate.
He was expressing ideas which a majority of Brits agree with, like Brown and unlike Cameron: he didn’t have 13 years of government behind him, like Brown: he was personable, poised, intelligent, knew what he was talking about, and looked good.
That in itself might not have changed the election. But after two or three days of public agreement that Clegg had come across better than either Cameron or Brown, the right-wing media (which is most of the newspapers in the UK!) seem to have suddenly panicked. They were counting on a Tory win. The bookies were giving Cameron short odds: the chances of a narrow victory for Brown were leaking away: on 7th May 2010, Britain should have woken up to another five years of Tory rule, just the way it’s always been.
Suddenly, on or about 18th April, every pundit and and front-page subeditor started coming out with stories about Nasty Nick Clegg. Don’t vote LibDem! the Labour contingent cried: you’ll be letting the Conservatives in. (This is actually what happened in the 1983 General Election, as every voter over 45 is old enough to personally remember: the left-wing liberal vote got split three ways, and the Tories got in with a 144-seat majority.) Don’t vote LibDem! the Conservative contingent cried, many tongues with one voice: he’s a traitor he’s evil he’s a panderer he’s NOT NICE, you’re supposed to vote for US as an alternative to Labour! (Cameron was running on a dreary series of posters illustrated here: his theme was “Change” but he couldn’t say to what.)
Cristina Odone, a journalist who blogs at the Telegraph, gleefully joined the fray. Former editor of the Catholic Herald and former deputy editor of the New Statesman (which she left in a flurry of accusations that the “neoLeft” were “wishing cancer on her”) she had a rant all piled up and ready to go about Doctor Evan Harris.
Doctor Harris has been a LibDem MP since 1997, and has been their spokesman for health, education, and science. He has spoken out in support of patients seeking the right to die, and asserted as a principle that patients must have the right to determine their own treatment, even if their doctors say it is irrational. For this, he has been regularly accused of supporting euthanasia.
Cristina Odone’s first jump on the bash-Clegg bandwagon was a bit sideways: she wrote The Lib Dems are a Jekyll and Hyde party. Forget nice Mr Clegg. What about ‘Dr Death’? in which she declared that “Dr Harris believes in euthanasia – and, I mean, really believes. He was instrumental in ensuring that legalising euthanasia became Lib Dem party policy”, that he also believes “our present abortion laws are too strict, and the fact that an astonishing fifth of pregnancies are terminated is of no great import”, and that whenever she has seen him debate ethical or religious issues she sees him “turn pop-eyed with bilious indignation. He becomes almost a caricature of the National Humanist Society spokesman: God is bad, his followers mad.”
Interestingly, Evan Harris himself responds in the comments (scroll down: evanharris on Apr 19th, 2010 at 11:16 am) to say that he is sad that someone who has always been polite and civil to his face, should resort to snide personal comments. He notes that like most of the country, he supports the legalisation of assisted dying for the suffering terminally ill of sound mind, and opposes euthanasia: he supports the right of women not to be forced to go through pregnancy and give birth against their will, and denies ever having said that the current abortion rate is “not of import” nor has he ever said “God is bad, his followers mad”: he respects the religious view but believes the state should be neutral on religion.
Cristina Odone does not respond directly to Evan Harris, but today posted again complaining about the long string of comments in response to her attack on him, blaming them on the Lib Dems’ spooky posse of internet pests, and claiming that this means “the forces of hell” have been loosed on her to shut down debate. (As one commenter noted briefly in response: “You have a blog. You insult people on it. People come along and disagree. Spooky!”)
What does this have to do with Islington, I hear you ask?
Islington is an inner-city borough in the City of London. The council is currently LibDem, but it’s been Labour in the past: it is widely regarded as “the spiritual home of Britain’s left-wing intelligentsia” (Guardian, 2006: see also Why Did Many Famous People Live In Islington London?)
And on 23rd April, Cristina Odone celebrated St George’s Day by posting her second anti-Clegg rant: Annoy Nick Clegg: fly the St George’s flag in Hampstead and Islington. She claims that “as usual the only flags to be seen are stuck on the radio aerials of scruffy white vans” and that this is because too many people now subscribe to “the Nick Clegg version of history, where pride in our victory over the Nazis is regarded as ‘delusion of grandeur’. In these revisionists’ eyes, the extraordinary story of World War II is no longer our finest hour but our moment of shame: it gave us a superiority complex that has left us incapable of playing nicely on the Euro team. In the inside-out world of Nick Clegg, EU bureaucrats rank higher than war veterans and Brussels directives are more important than national identity.”
This diatribe does not link to the source article, but it is pretty definitely based on an article Nick Clegg wrote for the Guardian when he was a LibDem MEP in 2002: Don’t mention the war. Grow up.
Clegg writes about a bullying incident that happened in 1984, when he was 17 and on a school trip – an exchange visit with a school in Germany. The coach was filled with English and German teenagers, girls and boys: the incident began when an English boy “shouted from the back of the coach, ‘we own your country, we won the war’. Other boys tittered. One put a finger to his upper lip – the traditional British schoolyard designation for Hitler’s moustache – threw his arm out in a Nazi salute, and goose-stepped down the bus aisle. Soon there was a cascade of sneering jokes, most delivered in ‘Allo ‘Allo German accents.” The teenagers had all spent a month in Germany: they were now traveling for a month in England. The German schoolchildren “did not appear angry, or even offended. That was what was so heart wrenching. They just looked confused, utterly bewildered.” Apparently this incident from his schooldays came to mind in 2002 because Nick Clegg had “read of the plight of Mr Puhle and Mr Sawartzki, two Germans employed at Motorola’s international call centre in Swindon. They were so upset by the barrage of anti German jokes from their British colleagues – ‘they used to call us fucking Germans and sing songs about Hitler’, said Mr Sawartzki – that they were forced to leave their jobs.”
This condemnation of bullying Cristina Odone reinterprets as “The liberal establishment, who regard signs of patriotism as vulgar and even sinister, have brainwashed us into thinking that professions of patriotism are suspect, something that would look appropriate on the BNP manifesto but not as part of mainstream Britain” and advocates that St George’s flags should “flutter from the balconies of leafy Hampstead and Islington” which evidently she feels would annoy Nick Clegg but also show “a strong sense of national identity”.
The flag that flew on Islington Town Hall on 23rd April 2009 and 2010, at the instignation of the LibDem majority on the council, was in fact St George’s flag. I was sent a scan of the local LibDem newsletter from last year: the Islingtoner who sent it to me says that yes, the flag was flown this year again, and the local LibDem party has started a petition to demand that St George’s Day should be made a bank holiday.
The text of the article reads in full:
Make St George’s Day a Bank Holiday
Islington Liberal Democrats have launched a petition calling for St George’s Day to be made a national holiday.
Liberal Democrat councillors campaigned for and won the battle for the flag to be flown from the roof of the Town Hall on St George’s Day each year, after decades of absence.
Councillors Stefan Kasprzyk, JUlia Williams and Terry Stacy raised the St George’s cross above the Town Hall to celebrate the patron Saint of England.
Hillrise Councillor Julia Williams said: “St George was a Roman Palestinian and he is the patron saint of Portugal, Georgia, Palestine, and Beirut, as well as England. So he’s a very good patron for our diverse country and especially for a borough like Islington. England’s long heritage of freedom, tolerance and diversity is what makes this country great.”
She was joined by fellow Councillor Stefan Kasprzyk who said:
“I’m proud to be celebrating St George’s Day. It should be made a national holiday. We’re launching a petition to try and pressurise the government to declare it one.”
If Cristina Odone wanted to criticize a LibDem council for not flying the flag on St George’s Day, I’m sure she could have found one (it’s not a common practice: there are probably Tory-controlled councils that don’t fly it either): but she went for the lazy route, the picking out of names for what they imply (Islington is ethnically-diverse, left-wing intelligentsia, the place where a Christian registrar who wanted to refuse to wed same-sex couples in civil partnership lost her employment case) rather than for what they are. Odone could not conceive that such a place could have normal, healthy patriotic feelings.
She just plain got it wrong, because it was important to her to attack Nick Clegg: so important, that she couldn’t bother to research it.
Why is it important to these political pundits that everything is – as the twittering classes were saying so recently – Nick Clegg’s Fault?
Because if the political miracle happens on 6th May: if we go to the polls, all of us floating voters (I am one) resolved to vote for democracy: to bring in a hung Parliament or a LibDem government which will in turn finally change the first-past-the-post system that has kept us from left-wing, liberal government for decades, that will change the face of British politics forever.
The pundits and political experts whose living depends on being able to predict who will gain power in the UK – Conservative or Labour – who feed off the two-party system like piglets off a milking machine – if PR comes in, they know they’ll have to learn a whole new set of rules.
But more than that. The UK is a country where left-wing liberal values are the majority values. Conservatives have repeatedly got back into power since WWII, only because the left-wing majority has always split its vote between two representative parties: in any one constituency, if 28% vote LibDem and 32% vote Labour and 40% vote Conservative, the MP who goes to Westminister is a Conservative, even though 60% of the voters didn’t want a right-winger representing them. A party which gets 40% of the vote ends up running the country. As Johann Hari notes: “Eighty-five per cent of us say the gap between rich and poor should be “much smaller”, and a majority would get there by introducing a maximum wage that caps the incomes of the rich at £135,000 a year. Fifty-eight per cent support a dramatic increase in the minimum wage. Fifty-eight per cent want to ditch Trident – an act of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Seventy-seven per cent want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan now, or within a year at the latest. Fifty-three per cent say people come out of prison worse than they go in, and would rather spend money on more youth clubs than on more prison places. … And Brits hold these views even though they are constantly told by the media that they are marginal, impossible, or mad.”
What kind of government would we get, if we could get the kind of government we poll for? One thing’s for sure: proportional representation would be the final deathblow to the Conservative party. If they got seats in Parliament in proportion to the number of people who vote for them, not in the number of constituencies they can take, they would never be able to form a government by themselves again. They would be reduced, as they are in the Scottish Parliament, to a third-class or fourth-class power in the UK.
That’s what they fear. That’s why they’re lying.
Even about such easy, checkable facts such as which flag flew from Islington Town Hall on 23rd April.