Hart of the Matter
So, the country has spoken, but as I write this (around 10am) no one is quite sure what it has said, other than that it doesn’t really know its own mind.
It was quite an exciting night as general elections go. Many have been incredibly boring, with the whole outcome obvious from the first exit poll and the first result.
Although the early predictions were not far wrong last night, they were so unclear that one felt almost compelled to watch or listen on to see if any recognisable shape would emerge – and then none did.
It was like listening to a piece of modernist classical music and waiting for a tune, or looking at a modernist painting and hoping for a meaning to manifest itself.
The reply of the modernists to comments like that is that it shows the listener or viewer is not open to the multitude of possibilities available, so maybe that is true of us politically as well.
Is this result a problem or an opportunity? If we think along conventional political lines it is clearly the former, so in order for it to be the latter, perhaps we have to change our expectations of what politics delivers.
I remember the 1974 election and the efforts of Ted Heath to struggle on as prime minister for a few days before resigning and letting Harold Wilson have a go via the infamous Lib-Lab pact.
As it happened, he didn’t manage many months before he had to go to the country again to get a bigger majority of his own, which he duly did. I was living in London as a student at the time and had to vote twice within six months for people I knew nothing about.
Before that, one of my earliest political memories is of Wilson’s tiny majority of (I think) three in 1964. My mother, a lifelong Liberal, was so upset that her hopes for dear old Jo Grimond and the Liberals did not come to anything then, nor did they for Jeremy Thorpe and Co a decade later.
There is a bit of a difference now, though, which is that in those days there were only a handful of Liberals – not much more than a dozen, if that, in far-flung corners like Orkney or Cornwall – but they still held the balance of power briefly at times.
In recent years there have been a lot more, perhaps 50 or 60 this time, in influential places like Cambridge and Norwich. There are more independents around, and there was even a Green success last night.
So it is all a lot more complex. Thank goodness for the Monarchy, say I. Can you imagine the shenanigins if the decision about what happens now was in the hands of someone from one of the main parties – as an elected president would be?
I believe this is a moment when the Queen still does have some say. I’m not a constitutional expert, but people seem to be saying she has to be convinced that, when one of the leaders says to her he can command a majority in Parliament, he is telling the truth.
And after the last few weeks – months, years – who would want to make that judgement?
I suppose the worst side of this result is that we will have to suffer endless political comment clogging up the airwaves over the next few days – enough to turn off even someone who is mildly interested like me, let alone the rest of the electorate.
I certainly think David Dimbleby should have to continue anchoring the BBC’s election special until we know the outcome. I wonder if he’d look so fresh after a week as he does after 12 hours.
I had a wander round the polling stations in Haverhill during yesterday’s glorious spring day, trying to spot a voter. They were shy and well camouflaged, but I saw five in all, along with two rosetted party activists.
‘This presents a sorry contrast with the pictures of the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ I thought, ‘where there were huge queues waiting to get their fingers stamped with dye.’
And then around midnight we all saw democracy in action – or trying to be – with real long queues at polling stations such as I have never seen in this country, and caused, not by an overwhelmingly massive turnout, but by good old British inefficiency.
Next time, let’s have independent monitors from Iran, or China, or Florida, to make sure, in the time-honoured mantra, that ‘this can never happen again’.