There is honour among thieves

By skepticlawyer

To their very great credit, in tonight’s third and final debate, neither Nick Clegg nor David Cameron tried to make political mileage out of Gordon Brown’s dreadful ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe, a gaffe now circling the globe and quite possibly entering permanent geostationary orbit, so widely reported has it been. I have difficulty imagining any Australian political leader from either side of politics behaving with similar decency. Brown’s only reference to the whole sorry episode was also dignified. ‘There is a lot to this job,’ he said, ‘and, as you saw yesterday, I don’t get all of it right.’

With that reminder that British politics sometimes evinces what can be described as the best in us, in this debate, the three men clashed over the economy. At times it became almost vitriolic, especially over immigration and welfare. Licensed since yesterday to talk about immigration in a way that has been unheard of in recent British political history, Cameron and Clegg clashed bitterly, while Brown was sidelined once again. The Lib Dems favour high immigration (consistent with their other often libertarian ideas), the Tories want to cut it, and clearly resent the loss of sovereignty that membership of the EU entails for their preferred policy.

Cameron and Brown really scrapped over the government’s role in the economy, however, and there was one extraordinary moment where the real ideological fissure between left and right was exposed for all to see: when David Cameron told a disbelieving Brown that ‘the government and the economy are not the same thing’. This gave Nick Clegg something of a free pass to outline his party’s policies, where he repeated in abbreviated form most of the arguments DeusExMacintosh made in her post on Liberal Democrat tax policy: incentives to get people off benefits, an understanding that it is often more lucrative to stay on welfare for the poor thanks to the low tax free threshold and high effective marginal tax rates, and a moving description of constituents in his surgeries in tears after they had mishandled the ridiculous complexities of Labour’s tax credit system.

There was some unreconstructed banker-bashing from all three, and some nostalgia for a Britain that ‘made things’ once again. Even Clegg – who has been most willing to use economic terminology throughout the campaign, presumably borrowed from Vince Cable – seemed unwilling to explain comparative advantage: the world has changed and Britain will not have mills again until wages in China are comparable to our own. 

No-one seemed bold enough to address the fact that Britain’s level of public debt is catastrophic, so much so that attempts to ring-fence the NHS, education and policing may well lead to extraordinary increases in income tax (and tax more generally). Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England and a figure respected on all sides of politics has suggested that whoever was in power by 2015 would have to raise the basic rate of income tax by 6p to reduce the budget deficit down towards 3 per cent. The Tories are historically more willing to cut the size of government (even though this is a promise on which they have often failed to deliver), and the LibDem tax policies would greatly reduce the welfare bill, but that is just the beginning of what needs to be done. King thinks that we will hate the next ten years, regardless of who is in power. Britons are discovering that we are not as rich as we thought we were, and that many of the ‘goodies’ we have become used to government providing are simply unsustainable:

Mr King has kept an ultra-low profile during the election, but he has said in the past that budget deficit forecasts for the next few years are “very large” and that the new Government will have to come up with a credible plan.

There is growing concern that none of the main parties has come close to spelling out the scale of the spending cuts and tax increases needed to bring the books closer into balance.


That would be on top of cutting spending by an extra £30 billion in spending cuts and raising taxes to meet current targets. NIESR thinks the further tightening, in addition to what are expected to be the deepest cuts for half a century, is needed because the Government has been too optimistic about its economic assumptions. Simon Kirby, one of the report’s authors, said: “It will be a shock and very painful for almost everyone.”

Some sense of the magnitude of the ‘black hole’ finally came clear about half-way through the debate, when Clegg and Cameron both conceded that efficiency savings would simply not do it, and Clegg began to use the words ‘black hole’, which the other two men immediately copied.

With respect to who ‘won’ the debate, once again I put Cameron slightly ahead of Clegg, and both Cameron and Clegg well ahead of Brown. This also seems to be the developing poll reaction, although I will need to wait for a few hours to see what the betting markets do in response. Brown was also desperately tired, and the frequency with which he stumbled over his words (not something Brown usually does; he may not be a charismatic speaker, but he is always clear) suggested to me that in the wake of yesterday’s train wreck, he hadn’t slept. A couple of times the camera got close enough to his face to reveal the amount of make-up around his eyes: the BBC appeared to have used a whole pan stick on him.

Still, the thing that will stay with me is the refusal of Cameron and Clegg to get down and roll around in the mud, along with Brown’s genuine frankness. Neither, I suspect, will garner any of them any extra votes, but that is by the by. To see politicians behaving honourably is a rare treat, and should be highlighted. To see it also treated as par for the course (in the press) suggests that there is life in the old lion yet, and that some of the better angels of our nature are sometimes to be found in unexpected places.

Even, perhaps, in politics.

[DISCLOSURE: The author is a member of the Oxford Conservative Association]

[UPDATE: Betfair analysis — Labour vote appears to be collapsing in favour of the LibDems in marginal constituencies.]


  1. Posted April 30, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I hope if it comes to it that our pollies take a similar stance. I won’t hold my breath though.

  2. Peter Patton
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink


    Looks like your theory of the different political cultures is bound to get a testing. And soon. Shall we place bets on just how many ALP and Greens ‘Bigotgaters’ are just champing at the bit?

    My take is that “dog whistle” is Australian for “bigoted wo/man.” 😉

  3. John H.
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know what is happening in European Countries but given the rise of Lib Dems in Britain, the Tea Party in the USA, and to a lesser extent the surprising Green vote in Tasmania, could it be that increasing numbers of people are turning away from the major parties because they have lost faith and believe we need to find a better set of political leaders?

  4. Posted April 30, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    John, I don’t know what’s going on at the moment. Both Labour and Tories have called the LibDems ‘the anti-politics party’, which is a bit rich considering that the party is older than Labour, but even allowing for that, there are some serious social and cultural shifts taking place.

  5. Posted April 30, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]
    I’ve been holding my breath since John Cain and Lindsay Thompson did battle for Victoria and at the start of the campaign, both stated how much they respected each other, and promised a “clean fight”. (I’d met both of them, and both were archetypal thoroughly decent chaps).

    That was 1982.

    I don’t expect to be allowed to breathe again, sad to say.

  6. Posted April 30, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    But wasn’t he right? – she was a bigoted woman.

  7. Posted April 30, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think she is, FXH, mainly because she accepted Brown’s answer on the ‘quid pro quo’ arrangements with the EU and told the press afterwards she’d be voting Labour. This is someone amenable to reason. Likewise, when the Sky people reported Brown’s comments to her verbally, she demanded the actual footage, refusing to believe them.

    Brown of course over-egged the pudding rather with all the apologies, but that is because there has been an unwritten ‘rule’ in the UK for some time that one does not discuss immigration, and Labour has a track record of shutting down debate on the issue by accusing opponents of racism. Brown knew that this fragile consensus had been blown wide open by the broadcast of his comments, which means that the country is now having the immigration debate it should have had three election cycles ago.

    More on this thread:

  8. Posted April 30, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Although in the Channel 4 “factcheck” segment last night they showed Brown’s figures were out by almost 800,000 (ie. there are that many more Europeans in Britain than Britons in Europe).

  9. Patrick
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    If THAT was where a clean fight gets you Dave Bath then nothing could have better confirmed my theory that the cleaner the fight the rottener the system.

    In the real world, life is messy sordid and littered with bodies under buses. They aren’t going to be any different in government anymore than your colleagues are any different once they make manager.

    Let’s see the warts and to hell with the roses. Take for two great examples – Al Gore and Rielle Hunter’s ex – both smashed into unelectable outer orbit by ‘warts and all’ journalism showing what absolute hypocrites they are.

  10. su
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Is it correct that Labour intend to run a Laura Norder attack against the LibDems? Seems like a lot of money is wasted on surveillance that does not, as far as I have read, lead to a higher clear up rate. Is CCTV popular in general?

  11. Peter Patton
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    OMG! The Guardian has turned into Rupert Murdoch by throwing out any principles it might have once publicly muttered, by declaring its hand at the 11th hour for whoever has the better chance of winning. In this case, the Liberal Democrats!

    Talk about The Left Turns Into Jerry Springer! 🙂

  12. Posted May 1, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] “the cleaner the fight the rottener the system.”

    Patrick – don’t know if you recall those two premiers. It was a clean fight because the two leaders were clean – not a “punches pulled lest the skeletons we both know about get exposed and most of our donors are the same anyway” dance.

    I’d rather vote in a decent person whose philosophies I disagreed with but promised to look at evidence, than someone who might have the same philosophies displayed to the public, but that I couldn’t trust to stick with them.

    That’s why I’ll have the Libs above the ALP (although both below Monster Raving Loony Party) in the next Vic state election, for the first time, despite my firm (and getting even stronger) socialist ideals.

    The way KRudd’s going, the same might happen with my vote federally if the Libs got a moderate leader with the ability to whack the “Lib” regressives.

  13. Patrick
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Yes but I was focusing on their government (or Cain’s at any rate) not their persons. I certainly do remember that!

  14. Posted May 1, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t heard that, Su, but it wouldn’t surprise me if true. Labour have created some 3000 new offences since they took office in 1997 (more than the sum total of all offences on the books in the UK to that point) and have produced a horribly invasive ‘surveillance state’. I once tried to count the number of CCTV cameras in the Oxford High Street and failed miserably. I have seen statistics indicating that there is one CCTV camera for every 14 Britons. On top of that, Labour wants to introduce an identity card (to which both Tories and Lib Dems are opposed).

    The Guardian may be coming out for the LibDems, and even though they mention the party’s ‘small state’ policies, I don’t think they realise that the Lib Dems really do want to shrink the state down to 30s levels, often simply by repealing laws and abolishing government departments.

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