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Friday 15 November 2019

Boris or a Marxist? Our Hobson's choice

UK Election Diary

Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson (Victoria Jones/Aaron Chown/PA)
Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson (Victoria Jones/Aaron Chown/PA)
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

What is the best outcome, for Ireland, in the British general election? "A Boris majority," says a London source close to the Irish Government. "But only a Boris majority in the short term. That will give Westminster the power to proceed with the Brexit deal. We wouldn't want a Johnson Tory majority in the long term - that would be too right-wing. What Ireland absolutely does not want is a hung parliament. That would be the worst of all options!"

But nobody can confidently predict what the outcome is likely to be - even Professor John Curtice, the psephological wizard who reads the runes of forward polling.

At present the Tories are about 10 points ahead, he reports, but anything could happen between now and December 12. And there's been an appreciable rise in 18 to 34-year-olds intending to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Would Jezza's Marxisant economic policies serve Ireland's best interest? Quizzical face!

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Or maybe the economic focus should be on Jeremy's Number 2, potentially the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell. Mr McDonnell (68), who doesn't attract a cuddly nickname, was warming up Labour voters in his native Merseyside last Thursday, telling them about his Irish Catholic family who had worked so hard as immigrants.

His father was a docker who used to haul bales of hay on to the wharves.

As a lad, John McDonnell started out to train for the priesthood, but then discovered Karl Marx and girls, not necessarily in that order. The priestly formation makes him more "sinister" for some critics, as in James Joyce's Ulysses jibe about "the cursed Jesuit strain … only it's injected the wrong way".

He's regarded as disciplined and clever: a Labour insider and party financial backer tells me "he is very intelligent, well organised and determined to make a success of his position as Chancellor, if he gets there. My concern is that his focus is on trying to change the power distribution in the UK, which is very difficult - and it's going to take precedence over getting the economy to raise living standards, which I think could be done with a more pragmatic approach."

Indeed, McDonnell plans to fleece the rich, with a huge hike in income tax for higher earners. Although he is not now a religious believer, he nonetheless occasionally goes to church, and describes himself as a "cultural Catholic". Could this be sincere, or is there an element of "cakeism" (having your cake and eating it)?

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If ever there was a classic Irish constituency in England, it was dear old Kilburn, in north-west London. But "The Kings of the Kilburn High Road", those turbulent Irish emigres in Jimmy Murphy's stirring drama, would hardly recognise their old bailiwick now, with its array of Turkish, Lebanese and Polish restaurants, the Al-Mahdi supermarket, the Al-Waha Halal butchers, the Khyber Carpet emporium and the shops selling burqas, hijabs and abayas.

Kilburn residents are distinctly multi-culti and the rich variety of fruit and vegetable markets and food emporiums have probably improved the area. There's an excellent and inexpensive Afghan restaurant, Ariana, at 241 Kilburn High Road, which I recommend.

The sitting MP is Tulip Siddiq (37), who holds Hampstead and Kilburn with a handsome majority (succeeding thespian Glenda Jackson, who has returned to treading the boards in her 80s). Ms Siddiq is a Muslim from a political background - her aunt is prime minister of Bangladesh - and the old Irish construction workers who built 1950s Britain and dwelt in Kilburn, if there are any left, are probably not to the forefront of her concerns. Her especial cause is supporting BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic communities).

The Irish weekly newspapers are still available at a stall near Brondesbury station - staffed by Middle Eastern newsagents. So there is still an Irish presence. But not as it once was.

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Jo Swinson (39), the Liberal Democrat leader: who does she remind me of? Why, Margaret Thatcher! She is so absolutely sure of herself, so confident that "I can be prime minister". Like Maggie, she sets unambiguously clear goals: "Stop Brexit"

I admire her self-assurance and self-affirmation, though her East Dunbartonshire seat could be taken by the ScotNats, led by that other Maggie Thatcher follow-on act, Nicola Sturgeon - who may turn out to be the centrifugal force in this volatile election.

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Mary McAleese, who seems to have an opinion on everything (hark at who's talking!) said last week that "Brexit has produced an enraged, not engaged, civic society". She may have a point about Northern Ireland - when has the North not been enraged by its tribal conflicts? - but I think she's wrong about Britain itself, where Brexit has produced an invigorating degree of civic and social engagement.

Citizens voted in the Brexit referendum who had never bothered to vote before. The Labour Party first got windy about Brexit when it saw the exceptionally high level of voter turnout, particularly in working-class constituencies.

Discourse broke out everywhere. Think-tanks flourished. Political events attracted huge crowds. The Brits took to the streets almost as if they were French.

Brexit didn't create divisions in British society - it merely revealed them. Yes, there have been arguments in families, among friends and colleagues - but that's what political engagement means! It means you're involved, you care: you are interested in a nation's identity and destiny.

Since the general election campaign started, divisiveness and hostilities have diminished, because there is now a focus of activity, and people can survey their electoral choices. The political landscape is certainly changing all over the UK - but that reflects a healthy organism. Only a dead political entity stays stock still.

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Correction: I mixed up my Victorian novelists last week: the Anti-Suffrage League leader was novelist Mrs Humphry Ward, not Mrs Henry Wood, who was the author of the tear-jerking East Lynne. ("Dead, dead - and never called me mother!")

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