I’m not a mountaineering enthusiast, nor a fan of books or movies about it. But I’ve always been struck by the power of the title Joe Simpson chose for his 1988 book (later filmed), Touching the void. It tells how, after he and Simon Yates conquered the 6,300-metre Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, both climbers nearly lost their lives on the descent. I haven’t read it, though I’ve heard extracts in school assemblies, read by colleagues who are themselves enthusiastic climbers and love to use Simpson’s tribulations and ultimate survival (arguably, a lucky one at that) as a lesson and metaphor about resilience.
What I like about the title is the way that, by contradictorily suggesting the impossible, it conjures up a powerful image. Of course you can’t touch a void, which is an emptiness: yet climbers, constantly clinging perilously to rock-faces and snow-precipices (an activity which appeals to me not a bit), come as close to doing so as anyone could. Clever.
Somehow I find that image and metaphor striking me time after time as, dismayed, I watch the chaos that is UK politics.
That last sentence may suggest that what will follow could be an account the length of War and Peace (another increasingly topical title, perhaps), but I’ll content myself with just a few examples.
I’ll start with Brexit. Whether you’re for or against, it’s hard to have confidence in the way things are going. For a start, which way are they going? Blowed if I know. The trouble is, I’m not sure anyone in charge knows either.
Civil servants (who, let’s face it, really do the work) are rumoured to be panicking and/or leaving the Brexit department in droves. We’re told progress is being made, yet warned that Parliament will probably have to vote on the final Brexit package only after it’s all happened, which says something truly bizarre and alarming about the state of our democracy. The PM issues bland reassurances, generally in blatant contradiction to what her Brexit Secretary has just announced.
I find David Davis, who likes to present himself as a bruiser to cover for his lack of charisma or charm, easier to take since the BBC Radio show Dead Ringers caricatured him as Brexit Bulldog, phoning in hapless reports to the PM and boasting, for example, that he wasn’t fooled by a Brussels taxi-driver offering him a ride for ten Euros. He wasn’t dealing in rubbish foreign money: he stuck to his guns and paid the full £45billion to get to the airport. And so it went on, hilariously.
Hilariously, that is, until what reliable news emanates from the negotiations suggests that the process is as absurd as the satirists suggest. That sets off the hardline Brexiteers in Mrs May’s own party who bully her and bluster to anyone who’ll listen that we’d be better off with no deal. Their arrogance and stupidity risk plunging our nation into isolated penury. I guess their assured (and generous) parliamentary pensions leave them feeling confident that they’ll be pretty well-off even in that brave new world. Me, I fear my retirement could be less comfortable than I’d planned.
Still, the government’s in control domestically, surely? Apparently not. Everything it does seems dogged by incompetence. We may never know whether its reformed welfare system, Universal Credit, was the right idea or not. So inefficient has been its piloted roll-out that genuinely needy people are waiting six weeks to receive support, creating levels of hardship that are a scandal in a wealthy (for now) developed country.
One little story struck me as an illustration of government blindness and bungling. The tax people, HMRC, have decided to rationalise their computerised operation and run with a single provider, which I understand is part of the American corporation that owns Amazon. Hitherto HMRC’s main supplier was a Manchester-based firm that has now gone into liquidation because HMRC was just about its only client: other UK tech firms have also been hard-hit by the switch.
HMRC will, no doubt, boast efficiencies and cost-savings: meanwhile there’s a British firm gone bust and its people and supply-chain in Manchester out of work. I wonder how much tax revenue has been lost. And how many benefits may be needed if the employees cannot find new work.
Should a colossal government department be permitted to hand a massive contract to an overseas business at the expense of British workers? We’re well practised at such tactics in defence. We’ve built two massive new aircraft carriers here, yet we failed to follow the success of the groundbreaking Harrier jump-jet with further development: our carriers will fly expensive US planes – when they eventually arrive.
I’m not a protectionist. Nor am I an expert on either politics or economics. Yet all this seems barmy. To an onlooker, there seems at present a vacuum at the heart of government, obsessed with making noise, sounding and looking tough, but achieving nothing. It grasps nothing, and cannot itself be grasped.
Touching the void? If only we could: then we might achieve something. But we cannot. Perhaps we’re observing is the reality of UK politics, finally exposed. But it’s not, surely, what we vote for or have a right to expect.
I think I’ll go down the pub.