This is the fifth general election I’ve experienced since my move to the United Kingdom; I recall the topsy-turvy contest of 1992, which led almost inexplicably to John Major’s triumph. I remember that glad morning in 1997 when New Labour took office; it was a bright, unseasonably warm May day and the event was covered in detail by a series of breathless reporters and hovering helicopters. Though I was sceptical about how much positive change would occur, I grudgingly felt a certain amount of hope when Tony Blair walked into Number 10. The elections of 2001 and 2005 were very dull in comparison: I went to bed early on Election Day in both instances with the certainty that Labour would remain in office. This time is different: as I look out of the corner of my eye, I can see on television that the green beside the Houses of Parliament is crowded with politicians, pundits and reporters in full flow. This may be a natural expression of long suppressed feelings of excitement and tension. In addition to the aforementioned emotions, there may also be a sense of relief. At long last, the matter will be decided: who is going to run the country? What direction will we go? What will be the disposition of this nation when it comes to war and peace?
While these questions are very important, it’s unfortunate that a more fundamental one is being lost in the mix, specifically: how shall we live? There has rarely been a better time to address this. Make no mistake, things are improving, but we are still wandering amidst the ruins of a failed economy: the shards of broken champagne bottles left behind by financiers continue to make the journey out of recession perilous, as does the clotted wads of deficit spending used to plug holes in the nation’s accounts: no doubt a flood threatens. This mixture of disaster, exhaustion and tenuous recovery has created a political moment which is only comparable to the election held near the end of World War II. However, in the course of 1945’s campaign, the question of “how shall we live” gave rise to a number of compelling answers: by that time, William Beveridge had crafted his proposals for the welfare state and the Labour Party promised nationalisation and “fair shares for all”. In comparison, the election of 2010 seems much more esoteric in focus: the changes promised by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats seem a mere gnawing at the edges. The speculators and bankers who led us down the road to ruin, at best, may pay more tax and be subject to a few more rules, but otherwise the present state of affairs will go on undisturbed. Perhaps things will improve on their own; few things, apart from the environment, seem to get worse without respite. After a time, it is likely that the “reset button” will at least be partially pressed: unemployment will go down, economic growth will resume, and whichever government is in power will claim this to be a great success at least until the next crisis descends.
To be fair, there are small political parties which more directly challenge the status quo: for example, I recently encountered a representative of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. However, that group and its allies are an anachronism. They insist on digging up the decayed corpses of Leon Trotsky and class warfare in an era of internet and iPads. UKIP is the British National Party on a higher salary. The British National Party thinks this political moment is more like 1933 than 1945. Admittedly, I am biased, but from my perspective it is only the Green Party which is asking the right questions, let alone providing substantively different answers which do not refer to ideologies which are out of date or out of time.
Returning to the stolid establishment, today, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg have all deployed rhetoric which speaks of getting rid of emphemera and arriving at the heart of the matter. These are mere words: for example, the Prime Minister’s admonition to “get to it” was followed up by him boarding a fast train at St. Pancras so he could he to go pester voters at a supermarket in Kent. Note the gap: the Prime Minister, the supposed servant of the people, who is keen to stress his middle class roots, took the most elite means of transport available to him (short of flying on a helicopter) to persuade less well-off citizens that he is the best man to defend their interests. Of course, most election campaigns contain similar paradoxical distances between elites and voters: it is difficult to imagine David Cameron taking out a home improvement loan to get the windows in his Notting Hill residence replaced, or Nick Clegg going down to the local corner shop to buy a pint of milk. Yet these men want the privilege to determine policy that has a direct effect on the interest rate on that home improvement loan, or whether the pint of milk comes from a cow that has been pumped full of hormones. It is no wonder that they don’t want to ask the question, “how shall we live” in manner that would fundamentally re-constitute the present state of affairs, as they directly profit from it.
What makes elections so exciting is that we can talk about this now and the complaining is not idle: there are a little over four weeks in which arguments can influence by which name one makes one’s mark. At this point, the voters are sovereign, the government is reduced in stature to that of a supplicant. Here is the moment of maximum freedom: yes, politicians and political ads are annoying. However this hyperactive courting is symptomatic of the precious nature of this time. I hope that this election is the one in which this true sense of liberty is used most wisely. We may not answer the question “How shall we live”; but it is in places like Brighton Pavilion, Lewisham Deptford and Norwich South that it may begin to be asked with louder voices, not just during the campaign, but in the period to come.