Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
So much at stake, so much displacement activity. We have not faced an election with such a gaping chasm between the parties since at least 1983. Yet we fill the final days of the campaign with rows about nothing.
Do you remember the Coen Brothers classic, The Big Lebowski? The film initially flopped, but became a cult favourite as people realised that it was in fact an ingenious meditation on nothingness. A case of mistaken identity leads the wrong man into a kidnap plot where the ransom money is not paid to a group of nihilists who turn out not to have the victim. The main action occurs in a dream sequence. Nothing really happens.
The past 48 hours have felt rather like a Coen Brothers film. On Monday, Diane Abbott issued what must surely count as the most puerile and dishonest press release of the entire campaign, complaining that Boris Johnson had used the n-word in a book in 2004. “Boris Johnson wrote this when he was a Conservative Shadow Minister. It exposes his deeply-held racist views which fuel hatred and bigotry towards black people”
As you have probably guessed (though naturally you wouldn’t pick up from the press release) the book was his novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, and the offending passage came in a black traffic warden’s reflection on rudeness and racism. The point Johnson was making was anti-racist and – perhaps braver in a politician – pro-traffic warden. Which is why, of course, there was no outcry at the time – an observation that holds, incidentally, for all the confected outrage about phrases torn from Johnson’s past writings, usually to make it look as if he had been saying the opposite of what the full context reveals.
Abbott’s witless press release topped a day that was, as the poet says, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. A punch turned out not to have been thrown. The Prime Minister was castigated for not looking at an image (though the clip in question shows him looking at it). Jeremy Corbyn protested against an NHS privatisation that no one is proposing. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
If the two parties were offering similar programmes, these empty skirmishes might make sense. People are often disproportionately troubled by minor deviations from their world-view. It’s why religions tend to persecute heretics with a ferocity they rarely display vis-à-vis different faiths. Sigmund Freud called it “the narcissism of small differences”.
But the differences this time are anything but small. So much has been said and written about Corbyn’s Marxism, his anti-Semitism, his readiness to embrace any tyrant or terrorist who is sufficiently anti-British, that it seems otiose to add anything at this final stage. Except that it is worth thinking about the immediacy of what happens after polling day.
Next week, if Johnson wins, Britain begin a mini-boom as the business decisions put on hold by Brexit uncertainty catch up. A flood of dammed-up investment will pour in. The exit deal will be ratified next month, and the agenda will move on to how Britain maximises its global trade opportunities.
If, on the other hand, Corbyn wins, we will almost certainly have capital controls in place by next week as people rush to move their assets abroad. Those Remainers who, as the economy has continued to grow, have been pointing frantically at the exchange rate, will learn what a run on the pound actually is. Those who complain that Brexit threatens isolation and a loss of global influence will see what it looks like when allies treat the British Prime Minister as a security risk. This is by no means only a concern on the Right, by the way. Corbyn’s own health spokesman frets that British officials will have to “pretty quickly move to safeguard security things”.
Every election is described before it takes place as “the most important ever”. Not by me, though. I dislike cliché, and I worry that the over-use of such phrases drains them of meaning.
What vocabulary is left for a choice like the one we face tomorrow? We have no words to convey the magnitude. So let me just make a final pitch to ConservativeHome readers. Put your screen down do some door knocking. Come with me, if you’re nearby: you’ll find me today in Reading East, and tomorrow on Southampton Itchen. Or if you can’t get to a marginal seat, try some telephoning. But please: don’t hang back.