Magazine article The Spectator

Do Something about Apathy? Mr Blair Can't Be Bothered

Magazine article The Spectator

Do Something about Apathy? Mr Blair Can't Be Bothered

Article excerpt

Shere is one principal conclusion to be drawn from last week's election results. An interesting new political mood is sweeping across the United Kingdom: apathy.

It is hardly surprising that so few of the Welsh could be bothered to vote for a ridiculous assemblyette which only a quarter of them wanted and which has no powers, function or meaning. But what about Scotland? There, surely, we were about to witness the reinvention of a nation's political consciousness. A turnout of less than 60 per cent means that the reinvention has been postponed. Those who want to put a Braveheart face on things have offered an explanation for the poor turnout: it was raining in Glasgow. There was only one problem with that excuse. It usually is raining in Glasgow.

No, the complete absence of triumphalism in Scotland was remarkable, and wholly unexpected. There would have been much more excitement over a football match. It has been suggested that this is all Donald Dewar's fault: Scotland's first First Minister is not good at conveying excitement; he is better at inspissated gloom. Nor was his mood assisted by the need to start haggling with the Liberals even before the final results were in. Donald Dewar had won, while Jim Wallace and the Liberals had come fourth. But anyone observing the two men's body language over the past few days would have assumed that the positions had been reversed. Mr Dewar is justified in looking lugubrious, but his mood does not explain the Scottish people's.

The new Scottish Parliament will cause trouble and, as usual, no one in the government appears to have thought anything through. Gordon Brown seems to believe that despite proportional representation, Labour could rule Scotland on its own. Tony Blair, who has none of the Chancellor's attachment to his own party, is quite happy to form a Lab-Lib coalition, as long as they all do what he tells them. That is not going to happen. The minor issue of university tuition fees has already exposed the potentiality for conflict between Edinburgh and London; there will be bigger disputes and more insoluble conflicts. It may, however, take rather longer than had been predicted for the full destabilising power of the Scottish Parliament to become manifest. That would require popular momentum in Scotland, provoking a reaction south of the border. But 60 per cent is no mandate for momentum.

The new Parliament in Edinburgh has been born in circumstances similar to those in which the old one ended: agitation and chicanery among the political elite and widespread public indifference. That will change, but not immediately. In the English local government elections, meanwhile, the turnout was appalling. In some areas it came close to losing its deposit. There is a wise old bird called John Stokes, who used to be a Tory MP. His colleagues never treated his views as seriously as they should have done, largely because he spoke in an idiom which would have sounded old-fashioned before the last war. So he aroused hilarity rather than respectful interest when he told Mrs Thatcher and her colleagues that he was worried about public opinion; people in the pubs had started talking about politics. Judging by last week, there is not much of that going on now, which is good news for Mr Blair. Apathy helps governments and hinders oppositions.

The incumbency factor has been much discussed in the context of American politics. Until the past 20 years, it had been difficult to unseat a president who was seeking re-election. That has never been true of a British prime minister, but in one respect there is a parallel. …

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