Bernard Trafford: It's time for the politicians to put country before party

Journal columnist and headteacher Bernard Trafford on the 'impossible' coalition that could be the best result in the election

ITV ITV Leaders' Debate 2015 showing all seven lecterns
ITV Leaders' Debate 2015 showing all seven lecterns

If you’re over 18, vote: use it or lose it, as they say. Only that’s not true: if you don’t use it well (or at all), you’ll still get a government.

Pundits say we get the government we deserve. We also get the politicians we deserve.

It’s been a frustrating campaign. Parties and their leaders have signally failed to cover themselves in glory. Commentators have been rightly scathing about the empty, un-costed promises, wild allegations and counter-accusations bandied about. It’s all been pretty unedifying.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 70th anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe. As my fellow-columnist Keith Hann wrote yesterday, present-day politicians are pigmies compared to that great wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill. Straws swaying in the wind of public opinion, they lack both the stature and the firmness, resolve and sheer bulldog spirit that enabled Churchill to carry Britain through its darkest times.

He believed it was his destiny to lead Britain and the Commonwealth (the world, some might say) through its crisis. But would today’s media, would the public let him get away with that? We’d ridicule such a conviction as hopeless, laughable idealism.

We’d certainly deplore Churchill’s weaknesses as a leader: assets (mostly) in wartime, they were hindrances in peace where he was far from successful; high-handedness; impatience; secretiveness; unwillingness to delegate. And his drinking habits… outrageous!

Nowadays he’d be torn apart for such character flaws. We’re certainly merciless with modern politicians, so perhaps we shouldn’t blame them for trying to satisfy every whim and demand of a fickle electorate: anything to avoid the feeding-frenzy that breaks out whenever weakness is exposed.

Rui Vieira/PA Wire A ballot box at a polling station
A ballot box at a polling station

Perhaps it is we the electorate, and the media who claim to represent us, who do the damage. Think how vicious much of the election coverage has been. A few weeks ago I criticised Jeremy Paxman for acting as self-appointed spokesman for Outraged Britain and rudely hectoring both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Last Thursday those two plus Nick Clegg faced an extraordinarily hostile studio audience.

Should we show no respect to the Prime Minister or other party-leaders? Is it acceptable to call them, to their faces, liars, hopeless, deluded?

So aggressive were their questioners that none of the three leaders dared nail the exaggerations expressed: for example, falsehoods about immigration frequently repeated during all the live debates. They wouldn’t or couldn’t engage with any uncomfortable topic for fear of losing votes, instead murmuring emolliently, “I understand immigration is an issue for many people.”

We get what we deserve. We allow negative rhetoric to spread. Only when someone goes really over the top (as Nigel Farage did when suggesting the NHS is paralysed by foreign AIDS victims seeking free treatment) does anyone (briefly) say, “Enough!”

Polls generally put support for both Tories and Labour at around 34%. Today’s vote is unlikely to create any overall majority.

A hung parliament’s fine by me: I’ve had enough of allegedly strong ones. The Tory/LibDem coalition hasn’t worked badly: with further practice, MPs might even learn to share power properly. Coalition curbs extremes, requires negotiation. Horse-trading isn’t all bad: and moderation’s usually the best way.

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Labour leader Ed Miliband
Labour leader Ed Miliband

But a coalition government shouldn’t comprise one large party with a ragtag of small ones making up numbers. The two big parties, Conservative and Labour, represent between them some 70% of voters: they should get together.

Crazy? I don’t think so. Impossible? Only while they characterise coalition as selling out, not as finding a solution: while they mistake pig-headedness for principle, intolerance for integrity.

Yet a split (I’d prefer to say moderate) electorate deserves a government that reflects it: by definition that’s one clustered round the political centre and based on moderation, coalition and compromise.

Shouldn’t politicians put country before party and make it work? Shouldn’t we require them to do so, and at the next opportunity vote out those who refuse to do so? Democracy demands we give it a try.

Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.

@bernardtrafford

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