In Limited Praise of Charlie Elphicke
by Sean Gabb
19th May 2017
Last Sunday, my daughter assisting, I delivered about three hundred leaflets in North Deal for Charlie Elphicke, my Conservative candidate in the General Election. This was the first time in thirty years I had lifted a finger for the Conservative Party. I explained the electoral system to my daughter. I canvassed a dog who tried to eat one of the leaflets. I got into a kerbside debate that may have brought over a few Labour households. It brought back memories of my youth.
When I mentioned this on Facebook, one of my friends responded that Mr Elphicke had not been a Conservative Member of Parliament of the kind I would once have let myself support. I will not quote this response. It seems to be both accurate and damning. For his lack of commitment on the European issue, Mr Elphicke would, at the beginning of the present century, have been one of the easier targets of my Candidlist project. Now, I am willing to vote and even to campaign for him. I defend my choice with these observations:
First, Mr Elphicke has been a decent constituency MP. In 2010, I approached the British Council in Slovakia, to ask for its assistance in promoting my books. I was told that the officials there were too busy lobbying for action on “global warming” to find time for the promotion of English literature. I wrote to Mr Elphicke, who wrote sharply and at once to the relevant funding agency. Ever since then, the British Council has helped me pay my gas bills from the Slovak translations of my novels. I know other people with similar tales.
Second, and following from the above, he has been willing to put up with me for seven years. He gets an e-mail of denunciation from me on average once a fortnight. He usually answers these at length, and sometimes with confidential admissions that make it impossible for me to publish the correspondence. Indeed, after the Referendum, in which he had campaigned on the wrong side, I wrote him a nasty open letter of denunciation. He joined in the Facebook debate over this, and entered into another confidential e-mail exchange. He has not since then visibly avoided my company. The last time we met, he spoke to me in Greek.
These two are important observations, particularly the second. There are countries – I think of America – where parliamentary representatives are hardly ever accessible to their electors. I am lucky to live in a country where I can see my Member of Parliament walking about the streets without armed guards. I once bumped into Mr Elphicke while he was at my daughter’s school. One of my students once made fun of him in the local Tesco. Everyone knows where he lives.
You can, of course, say this about most Members of Parliament. England is a country with a limited record of political murder, and even Cabinet Ministers are expected to show themselves in public. Mr Elphicke, though, steps somewhat beyond the minimal custom. You can ask him for help. You can make a nuisance of yourself, and have some chance of being tolerated. The Labour man he replaced in 2010 answered about one in three of my letters, and always with an unsigned postcard.
Most Members of Parliament are less than ideal guardians of the public interest. So far as I can tell, about half of them are nasty pieces of work. There is nothing to be done in the short term about this first. When you find yourself represented by a reasonable human being, you are under some obligation to re-elect him.
But I come to my third observation. Let us agree that Mr Elphicke is a man without any principled view of the European Union. When the Conservative leadership was in favour of staying in, so was he. Now the leadership is of a different view, so is he. I do not blame him for this. It does not in itself make him a bad man. It does not hold me from voting for him with a clean conscience.
The European issue appears to be settled in all but its details. Theresa May – herself a woman of no fixed principle – has committed herself to leaving. Her present peace of mind and her place in the history books both depend on how well she extricates us from the European Union. She seems clever enough to know this. She looks the sort who can bully or blackmail her way to an advantageous deal. Whatever else she has said or done, whatever else she may stand for, is not presently important. All that matters is that she should get the biggest possible mandate next month, and that the men we elect to sit behind her should be reliable. Mr Elphicke strikes me as completely reliable, and he therefore gets my support.
All this being said, I move of one of the more absurd wisdoms of British politics, which is that Conservatives are sentimental loyalists, and Labour is a party of hard-faced ideologues. The truth is exactly the opposite. Labour stopped being recognisably the party of ordinary working people at the end of the 1970s. After a fifteen year struggle, during which it split, the party was taken over by a charismatic liar fronting a generation of apparatchiks who proceeded to do well for themselves and for nobody else. During these thirty five years, Labour hung on to its core voters. It did badly in 1983 because of the Falklands War. It did badly in 1987 mainly because of the electoral system. It is only now that ordinary working people are responding to Mrs May’s revised brand of One Nation Conservatism.
The Conservatives core cote, on the other hand, has been far more volatile. We abstained in large numbers in 1997, because of Europe. If all of us who abstained or voted UKIP in 2001 and 2005 had voted Conservative, Labour would have at least lost its majority. The Conservatives could have got an overall majority in 2010, and could have won a big majority in 2015. The main reason Mrs May seems headed now for a crushing majority is because almost none of us will vote UKIP. Large numbers of conservatives take a purely instrumental view of the Conservative Party. There is little brand loyalty. When it seems likely to do something conservative, it gets support. When it seems a lost cause, it is dumped.
About twenty years ago, I listened to Peter Tatchell’s explanation of why he could no longer support the Labour Party. I forget what had upset him, but I do recall that he was almost in tears at the thought of no longer being a member of the Labour Party. It was a reaction I found hard to understand. Conservatives abstain, or vote UKIP, or come back to the Conservative Party, without a twinge of guilt; and returners are generally welcomed without recrimination.
In 2010, I voted Conservative for the first time this century because I feared Labour more than I despised the Conservatives. It was the same in 2015 – and because, in spite of all else to be said against him at the time, I rather liked Charlie Elphicke. Because the present election is effectively a rerun of the Referendum, I will vote for him again. However, a big win for the Conservatives this time may leave the political landscape so altered that other options will emerge.
Until then, Mr Elphicke, and through him Mrs May, will have my support. I may even accept his invitation, come polling day, to sit as a Conservative teller….