In my early years the factions within the Labour Party were held together by Harold Wilson and later, less successfully, by Jim Callaghan. These men had convictions, but they hardly wore them on their sleeves.
Sandwiched between them was the Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, whom in those days I viewed as the enemy. A veteran of the Normandy Landings, Heath’s strongest conviction was his attachment to the European project, and his great achievement was to bring Britain into the Common Market. His humane response to the economic crisis of the early seventies was to distribute the pain, rationing electricity and imposing absolute limits on wage and salary rises across the economic spectrum. A policy of austerity for the poor and business as usual for the rich did not occur to him. Challenged by the mineworkers’ union he lacked the killer instinct of the free-market ideologue who would succeed him as Conservative leader. Instead of waging war on the miners and their communities, he appealed to the voters, calling an early election on the question Who rules Britain? (and getting the answer Not you). For all these signs of decency he was later condemned by his own party.
For some, such as my father, it felt like an era of low deals and muddy compromises, in which Britain seemed permanently blighted by post-industrial decline. Wilson, Heath and Callaghan certainly had their faults, but the more time passes the better they look, particularly Wilson, who oversaw a range of progressive legislation that had a positive impact on race relations, gender equality and gay rights, while maintaining the welfare state through rising economic difficulties. One of his achievements, unremarkable at the time but noteworthy in retrospect, was to withstand pressure from Lyndon Johnson to take Britain into the Vietnam War. He retired having acquired no great wealth. This also seemed normal back then, but now looks like a striking failure to capitalize on a position of political influence.
The pragmatists were followed by Thatcher and Blair, the prophets of change, one determined to transform the country by rolling back the state, the other set on ridding his party of the taint of socialism. Though Blair did more than Thatcher to invest in the public sector, he seemed to inherit her assumption that Britain’s future would best be served by a deregulated financial sector and a docile and powerless workforce. They relied on their personalities to push through policies often in the teeth of opposition from within their own parties as well as without, and were undaunted by mass protest on the streets. Thatcher’s war, a relatively discrete affair, allowed her to strike a Churchillian pose. Blair’s wilder military adventures left him desperately parading his clean conscience as things unraveled.
So what about the present generation of leaders? David Cameron’s flirtation with UKIP-style attitudes to immigration and the EU reveal a striking lack of principle. Nick Clegg seems hollowed out by compromises too extreme for many of his previous supporters. Poor Ed Miliband, who has some decent convictions and whose party I may vote for, is squeezed almost to the point of invisibility between a hostile press and the handlers who feed him his soundbites (Am I tough enough? Hell yes!).
No wonder our attention has wandered to the margins – to UKIP’s bumptious leader Nigel Farage, who no doubt fancies himself helping Cameron to form the next government, and to London’s mop-top mayor Boris Johnson who is busy positioning himself to challenge Cameron for the leadership if the Conservatives don't get that far. Farage’s party trick is to mince tipsily along the narrow line between the politically incorrect and the downright unspeakable. Johnson’s is to disarm truculent interviewers by acting the buffoon and spouting Latin. For all their jokiness and bonhomie they offer a grim choice between a Britain closed to foreigners with whatever economic consequence and one open for business at whatever social cost.
But there is hope. The right wing pranksters might not be the big story of this election after all. The seven-party leadership debate offered a new narrative. The advantage of this unprecedented format for Cameron, apparently, was that it would protect him from a direct confrontation with Miliband. Perhaps he was meant to look prime ministerial while the six lesser parties squabbled. It didn’t turn out that way. For one thing it reminded us that we don't elect a prime minister. We don't even elect a government. We elect a parliament, and it's up to them to sort out the rest. For another thing, the clear winners were Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, with Natalie Bennett of the Greens close behind. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s only MP so far, is even more impressive than Bennett. A coalition led by these talented women would certainly be a breath of fresh air.
Of course, they’d have to let Ed Miliband in to make up the numbers. Time for some old school pragmatism perhaps.