Could the pandemic bring us all back together while keeping us apart?
It is five years – and it seems, several lifetimes – since the 2015 general election. Corona was cherryade, the word ‘Brexit’ existed only in Farage’s most excitable dreams, Donald Trump was just a narcissistic sex pest on the telly, and Jeremy Corbyn an eternal backbencher polishing a shoulder full of chips.
In the campaign, Labour leader Ed Miliband was trounced by a bacon sandwich, some drivel on a tombstone and the threat that, if he won, he’d oversee a ‘coalition of chaos’. Phew! Imagine if that had been allowed. As it was, David Cameron’s world of calm won the day: a bitter national civil war, an MP assassinated, two further general elections and two more prime ministers, the latest in hospital as a hideous totem of his own government’s botched response to a pandemic.
Since 2015, there have been many occasions when I’ve quietly thanked the gods that I failed to become Ceredigion’s Plaid MP. Having missed it desperately, I was able to get back to writing, but far more importantly, Ceredigion soon got the impressive Ben Lake, a man half my age, and with twice my energy.
Of all the memories from my brief attempt at frontline politics, there’s one in particular that has risen to the surface and haunts me, for it feels like some kind of key to where we are. It is not from one of the big meetings, the hustings, the media storms or the frantic campaigning; it comes from a discussion during a very dull campaign meeting, held (as they always are) in a badly-lit office full of cardboard boxes and discarded coffee cups.
It was September 2014, and the UK government had just announced that they were granting the Welsh Government brand new borrowing powers of up to £1 billion, which was all earmarked for the proposed M4 relief motorway across the Gwent Levels.
We discussed how to oppose this in our upcoming leaflet. I wanted to unpick it as an environmental catastrophe, a sop to the voracious road lobby, a terrible transport and economic choice. Others insisted that we frame it solely as all the money going down to the far south-eastern corner of Wales, and our region getting nothing. I replied that it was grim to play one bit of the country off against another, to which came the answer: “yes, you’re right. But it really, really works.”
Of course it does. To a politician battling daily under waves of public disinterest and hostility, the sharp clarion call of us vs them, victors and victims is pure catnip. It gets blood pumping, indignation stoked, media inches and petitions signed; perhaps it even wins votes. And if to do that, you’ve had to rip apart a few more threads of the fabric that binds us together, well that’s a shame, but so be it.
And bit by bit, the binds become so loose, the connections so frayed, that when a genuine crisis erupts, we realise – too late – that we no longer have the wherewithal to withstand it. By that, I mean our infrastructure after years of cuts, but also our social cohesion after years of pandering to charlatans, when too many of the good guys failed to take them on, and even worse, quietly aped some of their methods and language because – in the short term electoral cycle, at least – they really, really worked.
In these strange hazy days, I am veering like an erratic metronome between wild optimism that as we are seeing so much of the best of us right now, real and positive change may ensue, to the darkest pessimism that the wounds of recent years are just too deep to heal in these harsh winds. As it’s Easter (and let’s salute some real heroes here, those who gave up booze, fags or chocolate for Lent and in 2020 stuck to it), I’ll focus for now on the hopeful.
We are hearing politicians’ honesty in a way that we haven’t for years. Since the smooth heights of the Blair era, they’ve been intensively coached to steamroll interviews, and answer only what they want. All of a sudden, you can hear and see the difference: our representatives listening, weighing up the questions and doing their genuine best to respond. It’s very refreshing, and I hope will prove hard to row back from.
(On a related note, I think the fact that many of them are doing the interviews from home is helping too. Compared to the rarefied confines of a TV studio, awash with flatterers, it’s far harder to bullshit when you can smell tea being cooked and hear your five year old whispering excitedly on the other side of the door).
Also on the plus side, there are genuine new bonds of community springing up, The Sun and other Murdoch ventures are having to stick out the begging bowl, the BBC is sporadically rediscovering some cojones (diolch especially Emily Maitlis), and the NHS is now solidified in public esteem in such a way that even IDS will be hard-pushed to undermine.
Ditto our multi-ethnic society, and the realisation that it is the most recent arrivals and their families – the lowest paid, the hardest worked – who are so disproportionately at the front line of this crisis, bailing us out time and time again.
Will that make it harder for bigots and racists to peddle their divisive poison? And most of all, calling these creeps out, rather than slyly sounding a little bit like them – might that become the thing that really, really works?
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: