An unprecedented 3 years in UK politics and where is the gravitas?

We tend to look at national government in the context of it’s usually 4 to 5 year terms of government between general elections. The first Blair administration,1997 to 2001, ushered in devolution, the minimum wage and repeal of Tory anti trade union laws. Our memory of later Blair administrations is tainted by war. John Major will be remembered for the National Lottery, though some credit him with starting NI devolution – by bringing in the SDLP under John Hume. Cameron for the Brexit referendum. But the last 3 years have seen change and turmoil in the UK political scene that we’ve not seen before. It’s hard to know whether it will be the 3 Prime Ministers in the period, the response to the global pandemic or the war in Europe, which will be our principal memory of the current government. What is clear though is we have the most inexperienced group of politicians ever tackling the current crises.

Let’s just analyze what has happened and what it could tell us about the future? I’m using as my base text and reference point, the book “Diary of an MPs wife” by Sascha Swire. Written in early 2020 it’s an underrated piece principally a synopsis of the Cameron years by an insider who through her membership of the extensive social circle of the London dinner party set (including royalty) and who’s husband Hugo was a mate of Cameron’s, had access to and observed in action the decision makers of the day. Hugo Swire was Northern Ireland Minister for a while and the book has some interesting sketches about people we know well – including a conversation with Peter Robinson about him going to the House of Lords (thought likely at the time) and the damning conclusion that the now late Rose Patterson was a lot smarter than her husband (NI Secretary of State Owen) who was Swire’s boss.

But I digress.

Johnson was elected with an 80 seat majority. 3 years and two Prime Ministers later the Tories are 10 points behind Labour in the opinion polls. That’s an unprecedented swing in fortunes. Swire predicted that Johnson would unite the country and rule as a “one nation Tory”. How laughable that seems now just 3 years down the road. Swire’s book references a number of established politicians such as Dominic Raab and Liz Truss and newcomers like Suella Braverman, and some who’s star has now already faded such as Kwasi Kwarteng – though he mainly features as the love interest of Amber Rudd the then Home Secretary who left the Tories over Brexit. But despite being written only 3 years ago people central to the current government didn’t even get a mention – Sunak himself and James Cleverly don’t rate a mention at all. They were knowhere 3 years ago. It’s remarkable to think that Rishi Sunak has only been in politics at all since 2015 and for most of the post Thatcher years his North Yorkshire seat was occupied by William Hague. Cameron himself of course entered and exited politics a within a 15 year timespan (2002 to 2016). The career politician is a thing of the past just at a time when we could do with some experience and gravitas to get us through a crisis The Tories in particular seem to think of political service as a transient life subsequent to and in advance of something else. Before his fall Johnson had already declared he was going to leave politics and “make some serious money” elsewhere. Contrast this with the past. Harold Wilson had been an MP for 19 years when he became Prime Minister in 1964. He’d been a Minister or Shadow Minister for 17 years. Margaret Thatcher had also been an MP for 19 years before becoming Prime Minister. Wilson kept Britain out of the Vietnam War despite huge American pressure to join (the Tory opposition at the time wanted us in there). His political knowledge knew the course of that war was wrong. Ukraine is different and I’m not criticizing current foreign policy but in the midst of crises in inflation, health, cost of living devolved institutions and post Brexit, if only we had some experienced politicians at the heart of government?

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