I don’t normally suffer too badly from heights, but I do find the Clifton Suspension Bridge freaky. It’s the Samaritans’ posters that cause the problems. ‘Please’ they say ‘If you are thinking of jumping off this enormously high bridge, phone us first.’ That plants the idea. As I am looking over the railings at the river, the distant lights of Bristol and the cliff on the other side, it keeps working itself back into my head: ‘I could jump off. It would be easy to jump off. Maybe I’ll jump off.’
Similarly, last night, two days before the Election, I caught myself thinking ‘I could vote Conservative. It would be easy to vote Conservative. Maybe I will vote Conservative.’
The existence of such thoughts is disturbing.
I do not think that I have ever been what you would call a Socialist, but I am exactly what you would call a Natural Labour Voter. In the old days it was pretty simple. You voted Nice Party or Nasty Party. The Nice Party believed in teachers, hospitals, libraries and old people; the Nasty Party believed in policemen, bombs, soldiers, flags, prisons and cruelty to animals. We sometimes suspected that one side was Nice But Wrong and the other were Nasty But Right. But it didn’t seem to matter.
I’d sooner be nice than right. When I hear that someone has been sent to gaol for tearing the hearts out of babies and eating them in a nice red wine sauce, my inclination is still to think ‘Prison is so horrid place. Why can’t they think of somewhere nicer to send him?’ When I see a beggar in the street, my inclination is first to ignore him, secondly to feel bad about it, and thirdly, to think ‘Poverty is so horrid. Why can’t they think of some way of getting rid of it?’ What exactly that something is, I am not completely sure, but I’m quite sure that the ‘They’ who should be doing it is the government.
It must be admitted that the Tory Something (make sure that there are lots of successful factories to give poor people jobs) has at least as much to recommend it as the Socialist Something (tax the factory owners and give some of their money to the poor.) But the voice of a schoolboy seems to rally the ranks: ‘It isn’t fair that they should be poor, just because they have no money.’
Of course, this belief in fairness can go crazy. You end up saying that the fat kid gets the same number of ribbons in the running race as the fit one; handicapping the race so that everyone comes in first or banning races altogether. The late Mrs Thatcher was at least half-right when she said that Socialists didn’t mind how poor some people were, provided nobody was very rich. At its very worst, socialism seems to end up saying that there is something slightly disreputable about having money in the first place and (oddly) that it is just about all right to spend it on frivolous things like Rolls Royces but wicked to spend it on worthwhile things like healthcare and education. If we must have underfunded state schools and dreadful hospitals, then at least let the sons of Dukes and the daughters of Daily Mail columnists have to suffer there along with the rest of us. Otherwise, Snot Fair.
Yet having admitted all of that, Socialist Fair Play seems better than Tory Survival of the Fattest; giving first prize to everybody seems nicer than making some people wear dunces caps. Of course you should take money from the Very Rich and give it to the Very Poor. Isn’t Robin Hood meant to be the absolute epitome of all things English?
Now, for a very long time, those of us who wanted society to be at least reasonably nice, and fairly fair, were Natural Labour Voters. Sure, the Labour Party hum and har about bloodsports, but most of the Tory party actually go out torturing small woodland mammals on a Tuesday afternoon. Sure, they aren’t as enthusiastic about gay rights as we’d like them to be but some Tories scream for the age of consent to be raised to 103 and for all queers to be gassed. Sure, Blair mutters piously about giving his children loving smacks (isn’t that a sort of breakfast cereal?) but the Tories go into periodic bloodfuries about something called The Cane. We nice people would chose a party in which the crazy lunatic fringe suggests banning the word ‘black’ and abolishing the Queen over one whose crazy lunatic fringe wants to bring back crucifixion and suggests that the unemployed could perfectly well feed themselves by fishing in the Thames.
However, the tide is slowly turning. We Nice One’s are getting scared.
The one thing we don’t want is for the Government to start sticking its nose into our business, to start telling us what to do. The government is so large and I am so small that this smacks of bullying: and bullying, more than anything else in the world, is Not Fair. I don’t want to tell other people what to do; or rather I do, very badly, but I don’t think I should be allowed to. So I don’t think other people should be able to do it to me. It’s my Inner Child’s love of fairness that makes him a Natural Labour Voter; his fear of cross country runs, cold porridge, and books of grammar that makes me increasingly terrified of Tony Blair.
Deep in my heart I do not believe that the government (whether Nice or Nasty) has always got my best interests at heart. Even when they have, I am far from certain that they are clever enough to actually make the right decisions all of the time. So I don’t think that they should have too much power over me.
Sure they can force me to do things that I don’t much like. They can take taxes out of my pocket money each month: in the event of a war, they can force me to become a soldier and get shot at. If I behave in an anti-social way, they can lock me up, or take more money away from me, or (in theory) even kill me. All that is fair. But the rest of the time I just want to be left alone. It is not the government’s job to make me good. I have serious doubts about whether they and I would always agree on what ‘good’ amounted to.
But it comes down to this: I would chose a Tory government, right wing, brutish, corrupt and incompetent, over a Labour one which thinks that it is the Prime Minister’s job to define how many minutes homework primary school children get each evening.
In the long run, I will vote Green, or Lib Dem, or simply write ‘A plague on both your houses’ on my ballot paper. And then Blair is elected, maybe I’ll take another walk across the suspension bridge.