Put on your thinking caps! Letter to the editor

Meme by Matthew Taylor

Dear West Country Voices,

Like many others up and down the land, I was delighted by the news of Boris Johnson’s resignation. It has taken long enough. However, my euphoria has rapidly dissipated as I have forced myself to witness the pathetic farce of the leadership race. Even referring to it as a ‘race’ with betting odds demeans this fundamentally important moment for our country and democracy. 

The Conservative party is electing its next leader, who will also be our next prime minister. This is serious. This demands integrity. The word itself is suddenly being bandied about as being the most important, latest ‘must have’ trait. It is as if it has suddenly been discovered – no matter that it is already enshrined in the Ministerial Code., the code that has been trashed by Johnson, an inveterate liar, who lacks integrity in every aspect of his personal and political life. Even stranger is the fact that all those who are vying to take on his role are also competing to demonstrate who has the most integrity.

Strange, because up until last week, before it finally dawned on Tory MPs that they might be in danger of losing their seats, they have, in the main, rallied round the feckless prime minister, declaring that he has integrity; that he has simply made some errors of judgement and is contrite, etc etc. Most candidates in the leadership challenge – with the exception of Tom Tugendhat, a longer-term critic – have only very recently stopped giving the PM their full support. Some only jumped ship last Wednesday. Where, before that, was their integrity, and putting their country first? What a collective Damascene moment seems to have occurred. They have seen the light! Praise be!

Suddenly, we are supposed to accept blindly that Tory leopards have changed their spots in one fell swoop. Just like that! Forgive me if I’m observing the posturing, and am taking the words of these honourable men and women with a large dose of salt.

What is worrying me increasingly about politics today is the lack of critical thinking employed by the electorate in general, and by the media.

The list of candidates still in the race for PM is dominated by the far right. So be it, if that is what the Conservative Party choose, and it certainly reflects the party it has become since 2019. It is their democratic prerogative under their rules and our current parliamentary system. My problem is that the general public are sucked in by looks, by smiling personalities, by completely inane, populist soundbites, and being told what politicians think we want to hear. And, yes, to an extent this has always been the case.

However, I find it saddening that most people have no idea what, for instance, the ERG (European Research Group) is, let alone what it stands for and what it does. It is an extremely powerful group within the Tory party, and disingenuously named, in my opinion. To my knowledge, it has not conducted or published any meaningful research. The ERG is more of a cloak-and-dagger cabal which was hellbent on getting us out of Europe at any cost, and has been dreaming up ever more outrageous policies which most of us would baulk at. It has succeeded in its primary aim.

Candidates for the leadership from this group, or strongly supported by this group, champion a particular brand of Conservatism: a brand of Conservatism that completely endorses and champions Brexit and hails it as a great success. They are also ‘libertarian’ in a permissive way about all kinds of things that many of us would struggle with, even if we might think political correctness has gone a bit mad on occasion. At the same time these libertarians have a draconian streak when it comes to stifling dissent, punishing ‘common’ criminals (not political ones, obviously), and their attitude towards refugees and foreigners etc.

For as long as the Tory party is happy to shelter it within its increasingly narrow church, the ERG is, seemingly, entitled to do and say what it likes. This includes ‘interviewing’ the potential candidates.

The current chair of this group is Mark Francois. How the rumours have flown about this man’s conduct! After an extended absence from Parliament in 2020, he returned after the Metropolitan police informed him that the ‘evidentiary threshold’ had not been met for rape allegations against him. Of course, we are all innocent of a crime until proven guilty.

The deputy chairwoman is Andrea Jenkyns, who has just been appointed to the Education Department. Her suitability for the job is dubious if her experience and qualifications are anything to go by, but that seems to be no bar to a Cabinet post these days. Furthermore, it was she who, in a human ‘moment of weakness’, encountering what she called a “baying mob” (in reality, people exercising their right to protest against the government), gave them the middle finger last week.

The list of current members of this group speaks volumes. Many have held dominant cabinet positions since 2019 in particular. I urge you to take a look for yourself.

The group is relatively small, but wields enormous power. It is effectively a party within a party. Its meetings and members’ expenses are funded by the taxpayer. Yes! Membership fees are allowable expenses! This is permissible within our system at the moment, but I doubt whether many voters, including vast numbers of Conservatives, have any idea what the ERG does or the kind of policies it advocates.

The way the current leadership race is going, I wouldn’t be at all surprised – especially in the light of Johnson’s strange remarks about possibly not being at the dispatch box next week for Prime Minister’s Questions – if it is done and dusted without even going to the Tory membership, in spite of what is being said.

The current parliamentary party, and the Cabinet in particular, certainly does not reflect the broader church of ‘old school’ grassroots Conservatism, or the Conservatism of some of its most admired former statesmen and women of the past.

I find this lurch to the extreme right deeply worrying. I do not feel that the power wielded by the ERG is healthy for the country or our democracy. It is disproportionate. Pernicious, extremist influences creep up insidiously, to the right and left, when people take their eyes off the ball through apathy and lack of critical thinking.

It is vital at the next general election, when we can all have our say, that we are not seduced by smiling masks and meaningless slogans, and that we probe the policies and promises made by our potential politicians. To use the ‘f’ word for a moment, today’s fascists will not advance to power wearing jackboots, brown shirts and swastikas.

Critical thinking is key. It is up to us, the voters, to conduct our own independent research and become as informed as we can be about our potential parliamentarians. Voting records are a good starting point. Googling what politicians have said in the House of Commons and on hustings is also illuminating. A great deal can be found out from a wide variety of reliably documented sources with surprisingly little effort. (Hansard; They Work for You; My Society)

We do not have proportional representation, so our parliament does not reflect the more moderate political consensus of the majority. This is bad enough, but if first-past-the-post means we end up once again with politicians who are from the extreme right, then heaven help our country and our people.

The general public need to start researching who their politicians really are. See what they really stand for. We must not be fooled by PR tactics. We must look beyond the empty promises. Unicorns do not exist. We need to be prepared so that we know who and what we are actually voting for at the next election. Sadly, the mainstream media do not make this easy (in fact, the right-wing press drowns us in propaganda).

It’s time to put on our own thinking caps!