Voters in this year's British elections are a stronger force than ever before… one reason why it's going to be an exciting time.
If I were to predict the outcome of the United Kingdom election, writing four days before voting day, I would face a double risk: if my prediction proved right, readers would know the result by the time they read it – and would, rightly, say “so what?” If, on the other hand, I got it wrong, readers would, quite properly, say “that shows what his judgment is worth”.
I have no intention, therefore, of making any prediction. In any case, my interest, and that of voters generally, is surely in the actual result, not in the guesswork of commentators.
What can be stated with confidence about this election is that it confounded a great many assumptions and forced people to recognise that it did not follow what had for years become the traditional pattern. One big difference, of course, was that, for the first time, the leaders of the three main political parties took part in three structured televised discussions. (I wrote about the first of these in my last Cambridge Letter.) Inevitably, one consequence was that the performance skills of the leaders became at least as significant as the policies which they proclaimed. They have been under the spotlight to a greater extent than in previous elections, sometimes with uncomfortable consequences. Certainly this has been true for Gordon Brown, whose private comment that a woman he had just met was a bigot turned out to have been recorded. (He went back to apologise to her personally.)
Another important overriding factor was that this election has taken place in the aftermath of a series of expenses scandals which have destroyed the careers of many politicians and have encouraged a deep-rooted cynicism about the whole political process, and the role of Parliament within it. This has led the electors to be cynical about many of the assertions of politicians. Their “take” on what the country needs has been viewed with deep scepticism. That has provided an opportunity for the media – particularly the newspapers – to try to turn the campaign into a series of often intemperate, often ill-informed, personal attacks. One effect of the television discussions, to move back to them, has been to remind people that however flawed politicians may be, newspapers and their proprietors are certainly not always models of dispassionate detachment.
As I reflect on the election campaign I am led to several general conclusions. One, very positive, is that the electors have no hesitation in strongly criticising the politicians – and the politicians have to take it. The writer of a letter to The Guardian, quoting a young Burmese girl who was “thrilled, and a little surprised” to see that constituents can meet and criticise their representatives without fear of terrible reprisals, made the important point that Mr Brown's gaffe and subsequent apology might not have been a “good day for politics” but was surely a good day for democracy.
I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Ghanaian journalist visiting Cambridge in 1990 during the period when Margaret Thatcher was forced out of the leadership of the Conservative Party. He had been impressed, he told me, that this had happened without anyone being jailed or killed. I suggested to him that, much more significantly, no one had thought it remotely likely that anyone would be jailed or killed.
Another, disappointing, conclusion is that as a body of electors the British are still dreadfully insular. This is particularly true in the attitude to the European Union. Clearly, the EU is not without flaws, but we are members of it, and many aspects of British life are intimately bound up with it. Yet for all too many people, and all too many politicians, “Europe” and “Brussels” are terms of abuse.
A final reflection is how strong is the tendency for politicians from the Conservative and Labour parties – the parties which have formed all post-war governments - to try to terrify us with the threat that anything but a decisive majority would be the end of civilisation as we know it. That, of course, is complete rubbish. In a general election, the electors have the opportunity to vote for whom they want. It is the task of the politicians to accept that choice, and work with it.
Having observed, and voted in, many elections in my time, I thought it quite possible that on this occasion my reaction would be a jaded sense of deja vu.
I'm glad to say I was proved wrong; it was all quite exciting.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org