Democracy should never be put on hold because of terror attacks

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

I had intended this last column before June 8 to be an overview of the election campaign (and it still will be); but let me begin with a very personal reflection.

An election campaign – one of the cornerstones of a genuinely democratic society – should not be postponed as a response to terror. It is nonsense for politicians and parties to insist that they won’t be cowed by terrorists and won’t allow our freedoms to be curbed by terrorists; then listen to them turn upon their heels and say that an election campaign will be put on hold because of terrorists.

The election campaign should always go on; the door knocking should continue; the face-to-face between parties and the electorate should carry on; the hustings and debates and television programmes should run as normal. There are moments when being a democrat and keeping you head can be bloody difficult – but we need to rise above those moments.

Life can never be ‘normal’ again for the casualties, or for the families of those who have been killed; it can never be ‘normal’ again for people who find themselves caught up in a terror incident; it can never be ‘normal’ again for the security and emergency services who run towards, rather than away from the terror. It can never be ‘normal’ to worry about every van near you, or everyone carrying a rucksack, or being panic stricken when you hear a car backfire or see someone running near you. But nor must it ever become ‘normal’ in a democracy to overreact, or act out of fear, or permit hatred to replace simple, everyday decencies.

Anyway, when Theresa May called the election almost two months ago she did so on the back of a massive lead in the opinion polls and the belief that Jeremy Corbyn was a crippled leader, despised by huge numbers of his backbenchers.

Yet four days to go until the polls open and you can smell the fear from the Conservative camp. I still think they’ll win with a fairly comfortable majority; yet it is clear that they’ve now accepted the possibility that the result could fall well below their original estimates. It’s a bit like those last few days of the 1992 general election when Neil Kinnock (hot favourite for weeks before the election) realised that the supposedly hapless, hopeless John Major could win. Which he did.

May is dull, with a capital D – as was Major. But, unlike Major, she’s not an easy person to warm to. She always looks very uncomfortable on meet-and-greets; giving the impression that she’d almost rather be anywhere else than on a street with voters. There’s no passion and no charisma. No sense of people turning their heads when she walks into a room. No sense of setting an audience on fire. No sense of her being a natural leader.

Maybe all of those qualities will spill forth if she wins a handsome majority in her own right but, right now, she seems like a timid little church mouse.

Corbyn, by contrast, has opened eyes and minds. In fairness, given the general impression of him before the campaign began that wasn’t a difficult thing to do. But I do think that people have been genuinely caught off guard by his passion and eloquence; and, so far, he hasn’t made a catastrophic mistake on the campaign trail.

My own view is that most of his ideology and policy amounts to little more than nonsense on red stilts, but it does seem to be playing very well – particularly with young people.

It’s not that people have sat up and been wowed by him; but there does seem to be a sense that they’ve been surprised by him – and not necessarily in a negative way. That, I think, explains why the polls have narrowed.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that people, who think better of him than they did two months ago, will actually vote for him on Thursday. And nor does it mean that May is heading for an electoral hiding. She has incumbency in her favour (which can make a difference); and there is a tendency for voters to rally to the political status quo against a background of threat or terror.

But where I think she has really got it wrong is in her approach to Brexit. We still don’t know what she means by it. At no point during the campaign has she set out a coherent vision of what the UK will be like outside the European Union. Most of the really big ‘what actually happens next’ questions remain unaddressed, let alone answered.

Cameron almost lost the Scottish referendum because he didn’t address the central issue (that was left to a last-minute intervention from Gordon Brown). He did lose the EU referendum because, as I noted in this column on a number of occasions at the time, he didn’t bother making a positive, attractive case for membership.

Is May on Cameron territory again? If she doesn’t win then the first conclusion to draw is that she doesn’t have a mandate for her Brexit strategy. And if Labour/SNP/Lib Dems were capable of constructing their ‘progressive alliance’ as a consequence of her failure to win a majority, then it’s probable that they would consider a second referendum before formal exit negotiations begin.

It’s also worth mentioning that if she needed the DUP to prop her up – and the propping up were based on pushing ahead with Brexit – then you can kiss goodbye to an Executive and prepare for a long period of direct rule.

All in all it’s been a fairly pedestrian election. Yet the results, nationally, could still be astonishing and very far-reaching in their long-term consequences.