The most significant thing by far about the recent election in Britain was the Conservatives' failure to win it outright. In an unexpected way, this failure was reassuring.
The Conservatives faced a government that should have been an opposition's dream. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, owed his position to succession, not to election; he was so lacking in social skills that he had to be taught how to smile, with the natural consequence that, when he did so, he looked like Frankenstein's monster trying to be agreeable.
It had long been known that Mr. Brown, a former chancellor of the exchequer, was happier with a table of figures than with a roomful of people, but unfortunately nerdishness is not a guarantee of competence. On the contrary, he has presided over what threatens to be the greatest economic disaster in British history, caused largely by his own unfathomable incapacity.
In a handful of years, Mr. Brown has transformed Britain into the Greece of the North Sea (I am not speaking of the Greece of Plato and Aristotle, but of Karamanlis and Papandreou). The public deficit is at unprecedented levels, and by the time I finish writing this article, the country will be a further $60-million in debt, or one dollar for ever man, woman and child.
This vast indebtedness has been written in sand. A former government minister, Lord Walton, admitted that the vast majority of the extra money spent on the National Health Service, the state-organized system of health care, since Labour took office in 1997 has been almost completely wasted. Since that extra money now amounts to $150,000,000,000 per year, this waste alone - without mentioning many other bottomless pits of incompetence that the government has sought to fill - accounts for a very considerable part of a national debt that has doubled in just two years.
You might have supposed, therefore, that the government was a target that no opposition could miss. But David Cameron, the leader of that opposition, contrived to do so. This was because he so self-evidently believed in nothing but office and could therefore criticize the government from no reasonably consistent standpoint.
He was, of course, faced with a political difficulty. During the past 13 years, more than 75 per cent of jobs created in Britain have been in the public sector. An ever-growing percentage of the nominally private sector is now wholly dependent on government patronage or grace and favour. (For example, in a newspaper advertisement, I saw a position, at a salary of more than $120,000, in a privately owned employment agency that specializes in recruitment for the public sector.)
And the real rate of unemployment in Britain, if one includes the people allegedly but not genuinely sick, is something like 15 per cent.
A vast voting bank of people directly or indirectly dependent for their livelihood on government expenditure has been created, deliberately or inadvertently. It is only human nature that many of them would prefer any amount of public debt to a reduction in their own standard of living. A politician dependent on the popular vote would therefore have to principled, courageous and charismatic to persuade these people that the later the inevitable adjustment came, the more painful it would be.
Mr. Cameron is none of the above. He has about as much personal charisma as potato peelings. In place of courage, he has an apparatchik-like ruthlessness within his party. In place of principles, he has personal ambition. The situation calls for something different.
Mr. Cameron is the apotheosis of public relations, the opinion poll made flesh; it is no coincidence, as the Marxists used to say, that his only known employment before entering politics was in that great profession. Compared with mere truth, the focus group has seemed to him a fount of profundity. His conversion to green politics and communitarianism has therefore carried about as much conviction as Hitler's protestations that he had no more demands to make. If a focus group had told him that the world was rhomboid, he would have made it next week's policy.
The result is that practically no one voted for him; if anyone put an X on the ballot for a Conservative candidate, it was usually while holding his nose, and voting only against Mr. Brown, certainly not for Mr. Cameron. It turned out that this was not sufficient for the latter to win an absolute majority. Mr. Brown persuaded enough people to follow that great political principle laid down at the end of Jim (in Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children), which is about a boy who was eaten in the zoo by a lion: And always keep a-hold of Nurse/ For fear of finding something worse.
The only consolation to be derived from the election is that, notwithstanding all of the above, millions of people have understood both the appalling incompetence of Mr. Brown and the insufficiency of the focus group as a guide to life. Whether this is enough to fool the markets remains to be seen.
Theodore Dalrymple is the author of Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses.