Keir Starmer: Moral vacuum? Whisky priest?

The three main characters in the TV satire Yes Minister. (From left) Civil servants Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley and minister Jim Hacker. Fair use,

When the British news and views site Unherd recently ran a headline “Keir Starmer’s moral vacuum”, I thought of the Yes Minister episode The Whisky Priest. There is a moment in that hilarious TV political satire when the junior civil servant Bernard Woolley tells the senior mandarin, Sir Humphrey Appleby, that he’s worried if he will “end up as a moral vacuum”. To which Sir Humphrey responds: “Oh, I hope so, Bernard. If you work hard enough”.

A jokey moment, but with a core truth. In some circumstances, it pays to be a moral vacuum. If you’re a politician, for instance.

If you’re Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s Labour Party? Opinion polls suggest Labour is on course to win a massive parliamentary majority and form the next government. That would propel Mr Starmer into 10 Downing Street.

I haven’t read the UnHerd piece but it’s almost certainly about Mr Starmer’s flexible, apparently principle-free approach to political issues.

For instance, Mr Starmer backed Labour’s candidate in the end-February by-election for the parliamentary constituency of Rochdale despite a row on anti-Semitism. When more revelations emerged about the candidate’s remarks about Israel and Jewish people, and the row escalated, Mr Starmer withdrew support.

Just weeks before that, Mr Starmer made one of the biggest U-turns of his tenure as Labour leader, by slashing the party’s green prosperity plan from £28bn a year to under £15bn. It was one of his most controversial decisions as Labour leader.

Oh, and he expelled his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from the Labour Party even though he once served under his leadership.

Former British diplomat Carne Ross wrote a trenchant piece on Mr Starmer’s apparently values-free approach to politics. His Substack, Gentle Anarchy is always worth a read but the post on Mr Starmer is particularly good.

Mr Ross notes that while Mr Starmer once promised “comprehensive reform of Parliament including abolition of the House of Lords”, he’s now prepared to do little more to Lords than to set 80 yeas as an age limit and to remove hereditary peers. Once, he promised to scrap university tuition fees. Once, he supported free movement within the European Union. Once, he declared in favour of public ownership of mail, energy and water companies.

No longer, on all of the above.

Mr Ross writes: “There are two possible explanations for this farrago of policy reversals, betrayals of principle and public denunciations of positions he once energetically supported. The first is that Starmer is an out-and-out cynic who will say anything to be appointed to the shadow cabinet (under Corbyn), win the leadership of the Labour Party or be elected Prime Minister. That he has no core political beliefs or principles. That he is willing to stab in the back the people he once loyally supported in order to win power for himself. The second explanation is that Starmer is deliberately feeding the already-blazing fires of political disillusionment in Britain today”. Ergo, a “secret anarchist”.

Ah, but Mr Starmer, a lawyer who served for five years as head of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service is surely no anarchist.

Moral vacuum, though?

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