I think I’ll always remember where I was when our present political order fell to pieces. It was Friday, April 16, 2010 at around 12:15 in the afternoon. I was at my desk. A freshly brewed mug of rooibos tea was resting on a coaster beside my keyboard. I had just taken a look at Google News and saw the results of a ComRes poll taken just after the leaders’ debate. I blinked. I couldn’t believe it at first. The Liberal Democrats had surged 14 points in one night, overtaking Labour, and were just one point behind the Conservatives. It was so unbelievable I had to tell my work colleagues: they were just as surprised. Then we all went back to work.
This is hardly a moment when the proverbial red flag flies above the barricades, but to be shocked and then carry on is perhaps a very British way of conducting a revolution. Let’s be clear: a psychological barrier was broken by one debate performance and one poll. The idea that a vote for a third party is somehow “wasted” simply disappeared: all the polls since then confirm that this assumption is no longer operative in the minds of the British public. We could be headed for a three-way split result, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the General Election of 1923. We could also be headed for a situation in which the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives earn more votes than Labour, yet Labour may retain the most seats and Gordon Brown could remain ensconced in Downing Street: this scenario is so grossly unacceptable that it is highly likely that the voting system would be reformed as result. Yet everyone is calm. We’ve enjoyed a tranquil weekend with no planes in the sky, even if the earth beneath our feet has shifted.
There are small flashes of the revolution in my neck of woods. A series of Liberal Democrat signs along the M27 motorway have been augmented with a giant gold banner emblazoned with “Liberal Democrats” printed in bold letters. Small Liberal Democrat signs have made their appearance along residential streets, stuck in windows or planted on the end of wooden poles in tidy front gardens. Revolution may not be causing riots or parties, but each of these small manifestations is part of an overall pattern. One gets the sense that the electorate, after being suffocated by the Conservative / Labour show for so long, is breathing in fresh air and enjoying the rush. Yet again, life goes on, and small pleasures have come to the fore: for example, James Naughtie went to Richmond Park last Saturday, and broadcast the sounds of bird singing and insects buzzing on Radio 4. We don’t know who the Prime Minister will be, we don’t know the complexion of the government that will take control of our affairs, we don’t know what life will be like six months from now, yet alone a year. But this does not disturb, rather, the public seems to be more at ease than it was with the binary choice they had previously and is more interested in the song of blackbirds and the whirring of dragonflies.
It could be that the establishment stages a successful fightback; however, I doubt it. Sordid pieces such as the one in the Daily Mail questioning the “Britishness” of Nick Clegg’s background exemplify the pathetic attempts by the avatars of the present order to pull aspiration down to earth. We also have also been subjected to rather limp critiques of Liberal Democrat policies which were made all the more desperate and hopeless by the obviously grasping nature of people who are stating their objections. The Conservative response has been particularly dire; no one cares about the negative connotations of their vote, i.e., “Vote Clegg, Get Brown”. As President Obama’s campaign proved, a modern electorate’s preference is to vote positively when given the opportunity. As Hillary Clinton and John McCain proved, trying to swamp hope with melancholy is very difficult to do.
This is not to say that the Liberal Democrats are beyond critique; they are just as bound to the present paradigm as their Labour and Conservative counterparts. Recently, their foreign policy spokesman Ed Davey wobbled badly by promising updated nuclear weapons for Britain, albeit in a much reduced state as compared to present plans. This is maddening particularly since the Cold War ended over twenty years ago and the illogic of keeping nuclear weapons becomes more obscene the longer we keep the deterrent.
Furthermore, while the Liberal Democrats have interesting plans for reforming the financial system, they are still the most Europhile party (apart from the Scottish Nationalists) and as such want Britain to join the Euro. Last but not least, some Liberal Democrats do possess air of sanctimony that’s as pungent as halitosis, but perhaps this is a natural result of being aloof from power for so long.
That said, the success of the Liberal Democrats is still worth cheering as it may represent the point of the spear: the barriers they have and continued to knock down may open doors for other voices particularly if the present electoral system, with its dead constituencies and wasted votes, is swept aside. What is perhaps more significant is that if indeed that happens, few will care, fewer still will cry. We have recently discovered the pleasures of life without airplanes to contaminate the heavens above; absence of a corrupt establishment promises even more heady joys. Government could then become much more a synthesis of ideas rather than the dispensation and management of patronage, or to put it another way, more Vince Cable, less Malcolm Tucker.
There are over two weeks to go, and yes, everything could revert to its previous state. No one is beyond the power of the muckrakers, and if Clegg has some scandal locked up in the cupboard of his past, he must tremble. But somehow, I don’t think so; I believe his performances in the following debates may be even more assured, and these will create even greater confidence in him and his party. Somehow, it feels as if something has changed: changed for the better, and changed for good.