Shmoozing Up to the Rank and Vile
Glen Newey · The Tory Party Conference
In the old days of party conferences, the nomenklatura would wash up for oysters or jellied eels at some windswept seaside resort, with predictably farcical results, such as the spectacle of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea. Anno 2011, times are soberer. Kinnock has been towelled down and ennobled, and the parties’ annual beanos now go on not in Brighton’s decaying stucco gulches, but megalopolises like Manchester and Birmingham. Front benchers, and especially the leaders, fall over themselves to shmooze up to the party’s rank and vile – invariably referred to by hacks as ‘the party faithful’, though ‘the boundlessly credulous and opinionated’ seems nearer the mark – while also appealing over their heads to those at home who haven’t forsaken the telecast for Celebrity Poodle Parlour or a hump on the sofa.
This need to triangulate his audiences explains, charitably, David Cameron’s turn at the Tory rally this week, where the prime minister chose to adopt the mien of a Butlin’s redcoat jollying along passengers on the Titanic. Choppy waters, tough challenges, but we’re riding them out, with the help of the newly depleted Royal Navy. Do we really want to follow the BRIC economies, projected to contribute 61 per cent to global GDP growth between 2008 and 2014? Stuff that. ‘I say: we need to become more like us.’ As that honorary squire from the shires Friedrich Nietzsche said, become what you are. ‘The right leadership,’ Cameron told his Tories. ‘Leadership from government... But leadership also from you.’ In the Big Society, it’s not just that all can have prizes: everyone can be a leader.
And not just at home. We’re leading Johnny Foreigner too. When the empire went belly up, we found ourselves a role licking the commies and ripping down the Berlin Wall. Now we’re building schools in Rwanda, even if in 1994 the Major government did zilch while a million Rwandans died in the genocide, and cash-strapped schools here are falling down in the wake of the cuts. No matter. Another area of British effort is the export drive: ‘Half the world is booming – let's go and sell to them.’
Quite so. As documents discovered last month revealed, the UK arm of General Dynamics was hard at work up to this year on training and upgrading platforms for ‘40 T-72 tanks, eight Palmaria artillery pieces, four BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers, 10 Shilka anti-aircraft systems and two M-113 armoured personnel carriers’. All done under the export licensing system, and hence approved by the British government. The beneficiary was Libya’s Khamis brigade, named after yet another of the mad dog’s sons. The heads-up came from a General Dynamics spokesman, Rob Doolittle. As Doolittle said, the arms aid was ‘part of the United Kingdom’s initiatives to improve economic, educational and defence links with Libya’; the papers came to light after the fall of Tripoli. That’s leadership. That’s sales.
Back to the leader of leaders, and his fortune-cookie chiasmuses. ‘Remember: it's not the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ Arm-bands bad. Deporting cats, good. Sogginess, mogginess, no. Dogginess, yes. Our leader, it’s clear, has matters in proportion.