It’s 22 years this month since Michael Howard was put on the spot in a famous encounter over his treatment of the Director of Prisons by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. What a different time that was. The scales of accountability then were measured in traces.
Paxman asked Howard the same question countless times (“Did you threaten to overrule him?”) in the interview and Michael Howard spent several minutes wriggling like an eel. At no time, though, did he complain about the principle of scrutiny.
It’s the sort of head to head that was a familiar sight on TV news in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
On Sunday, Nigel Farage sat down with Andrew Marr. Marr adhered to the tradition and did what he is professionally obliged to do: hold Farage to account for things that he says and has said – and for his plans for the future. Farage was having none of it and was clearly rattled by the line of questioning. The difference was that Farage turned up the foghorn, drowned out Marr at times, and tried to call foul.
At one point, Marr asked Farage where his manifesto is for the European elections. “We don’t do manifestos” was Farage’s answer.
Manifestos, in politics, are the deal. Manifestos set out what a party pledges to accomplish. They are the documents by which the victors are held to account. Without them, we can have no idea what to expect. Manifestos are compasses. Without them, a country’s politics are essentially rudderless. Not having one is akin to expecting a job with no job description.
Farage answers most things, when he does, with nostalgia or a brush off. He evokes an air-brushed, sepia England (he’s not much interested in Britain), all pints and leather on willow, all “taking back control”. But none of it addresses the challenges of our time: climate, employment, social care, trade, health, enterprise, social cohesion, globalisation, collective responsibility. They’re nowhere to be seen.
Politics is all about the now and about the future. For a scrutineer, fitness for purpose, as in any interview situation, is a look at a candidate’s past as well as his or her vision for the future.
Farage won’t talk about his past. He’ll project England’s past as a model for the future. That’s already dangerous ground in in a world in flux, but worse still, he’s glaringly light on specifics and silent on what’s outside the exit door. He’s only interested in the exit and not at all interested in the detail of the aftermath. Challenge him on the specifics of that and you get absolutely nothing except platitudes, inconsistency and fabrication. It’s nissan hut politics.
How can anyone sign up to an empty doctrine? Politics is the hard work of specifics. It isn’t an easy trade. All the answers are difficult.
In Farage’s case there’s nothing there. It’s much easier to preach fiction than hard truths. Fiction is infintely malleable and appealing, but it’s not true. It’s empty. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Sign up to Farage’s fictional approach and you’ll certainly get nostalgia. It’s called ‘getting left behind’.