Politicians of all parties have always revelled in their opponents’ misfortunes. But there are times when a wise politician stands back and thinks carefully before denouncing another, attributing blame, or laughing like a drain. Sadly William Hague is not blessed with such wisdom.
Consider some of the problems our country faces at present:
- Large parts of the country are under water, in some cases for a second or third time.
- Our railway infrastructure is extremely suspect, and where trains can run, they are delayed by urgent engineering work.
- Farmers and road hauliers are threatening more disruption if the government does not bow to their demands for a massive reduction in petrol and diesel duty.
- Pensioners are angry at this year’s derisory rise of 75 pence a week, and feel undervalued.
In every case, Hague has jumped on the anti-government bandwagon without a second thought. But the good citizens of this country are not as gullible as he thinks, and their memories are longer than he supposes.
- The pensioners have not forgotten that the link between earnings and pensions was broken by Mrs Thatcher twenty years ago. And they would be entitled to ask, why did the Tories not vote against the 75 pence rise when they had the opportunity? Labour voted in favour of this pittance, the Liberal Democrats voted against, and the Tories couldn’t be bothered to commit themselves one way or the other. Now they propose scrapping winter fuel payments, Christmas bonuses and free TV licences and boosting pensions by less than they would save. So how daft do they think pensioners are?
- Motorists have not forgotten that it was a Conservative chancellor who introduced the infamous fuel duty escalator, which raised filling station prices by more than the rate of inflation, nor that it was Gordon Brown who scrapped it in his budget last year.
- Environmentalists have not forgotten that there is a very good reason for high petrol taxes; but instead of arguing the green case, Mr Hague can’t resist leaping aboard yet another rickety bandwagon.
A wiser man than Mr Hague would see that giving in to protests of this kind would not only reduce much-needed funding for our public services – it would also increase the chances of the same kind of blackmail in the future. Every group with a gripe would be on the streets, blockading and waving banners until their ‘legitimate’ demands were met.
Fine upstanding citizens, Mr Hague called them. The kind of people who threaten to firebomb tanker drivers’ homes, and who mutter menacingly: “We know where you live.” The kind of people, apparently, who have the backing of the BNP.
The farmers I do have some sympathy for (though not on account of high fuel duty, as they don’t actually pay it). But their incomes have fallen quite dramatically over the last five years. The Tories point the finger at the Labour government; but think back five years, to when this decline began. Who was in power? And why had our beef industry lost the will to live? Answer: the Tories were in power, and they had presided for a decade and a half over the incompetence and secrecy that we now call the BSE crisis.
The thousands of us who have been piling sandbags high against the worst floods for hundreds of years have not forgotten that the Tories turned a blind eye to the need for better sea and river defences throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
And what about the railways? When they should have been investing in a decent transport infrastructure for the benefit of us all, the Tories preferred to fritter away our wealth in tax cuts for the well-off. Rail privatisation was a complete disaster, and has led to a fragmented, ramshackle network of suspect tracks, decrepit rolling stock and erratic timetables.
Local Tory MPs back Hague’s hypocrisy with their calls for better health provision, better schools, more police on the beat – apparently quite ignorant of the role their government played in reducing our public services to near ruin.
All oppositions are entitled to oppose – indeed it is their job to be critical. But opposition for its own sake is in danger of turning off voters completely. The voters may support the fuel protesters, the farmers, the motorists, the rail travellers, the pensioners and the flood victims – but they won’t support Mr Hague for his opportunism.
We need an open and honest system of government in this country, and an open and honest opposition. The Tories are not only damaging their own credibility with their ridiculous pretences, they are eroding the whole political fabric on which our democracy depends.