A Time of Troubles

Big Ben With Exit Poll ProjectionFor me, this election only had two highlights. The first occurred when the voters of Belfast East made the most beautifully practical and rational choice they’ve made in recent memory: they elected Naomi Long of the non-sectarian, liberal Alliance Party to be their Member of Parliament. I’ve rarely seen an electorate rebuke corruption and depravity so eloquently. The other highlight was even more brilliant: Caroline Lucas’ win in Brighton Pavilion has been a giant step forward for the Green Party. Yes, the lack of other Green MPs does highlight how far the party has to go, but as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, or in this case, seat.

These two results are bright specks of light in an otherwise dark and murky sky: overall, the election has been dreadfully inconclusive. As I sit here, Nick Clegg is being tailed around London by television cameras as if he was a latter-day Beatle: I can’t help but get some of the opening sequences of “A Hard Day’s Night” out of my mind upon viewing the intensity of his media hangers-on. Gordon Brown has largely remained hidden behind the locked door of Number 10. David Cameron is ensconced in Conservative HQ. The public statements so far have been cautious, nuanced, halting.

I was not unhappy with the idea of a hung (or “balanced”) parliament, but I dislike this particular hung parliament: the Liberal Democrat number of MPs is far too low, and the barriers thrown up by the present electoral system are more impenetrable than ever. In the previous election, it took in excess of 90,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. Now it’s more than 120,000. Worse, some of the best and brightest of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party (Dr. Evan Harris is a prominent example) lost their seats. The Conservatives were indeed rampant: they wrenched back Winchester and Romsey, and took away Montgomeryshire. The City of Chester fell, as did Portsmouth North, Brighton Kemptown and Hove. The result is a lopsided hung parliament, rather than a “balanced” one: it disproportionately benefits the Conservatives, and the numbers are probably sufficient for them to attempt a minority administration with the support of the Democratic Unionists. I’ve looked at the math for a “progressive” coalition, and cannot see it working without the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cmyru supporting it: this is a large ask. Indeed, even Caroline Lucas might be required to make the sums work, which would be an unusual position for someone who has just arrived at Westminster. A stable coalition of whatever stripe looks unlikely.

Nick Clegg is the man in the middle. His careful, nearly hesitant statement which suggested the Conservative Party should attempt to form the government if it can rule in the national interest is a reflection of the present dilemma: he knows that if he helps the Conservative Party, together they have the numbers to form a majority administration. However, he and his party have little in common with the Tories. He may want to do what’s right for the country by giving it a stable government, but how can it be anything other than unstable if the arrangement implies endless bickering? No doubt every permutation and mutation of the numbers is being gone through by Mr. Clegg and his counterparts: they may come to the conclusion that consensus is impossible. If so, by necessity, the focus of attention will shift elsewhere.

If it wouldn’t drown out the news, I would go upstairs, get my copy of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and set it blaring on my stereo; for those who aren’t familiar with this work, its setting is during a period in Russian history known as “The Time of Troubles”, a chaotic interregnum between the end of the Riurik dynasty and the beginning of the reign of the Romanovs. The figure named in the title of this work was appointed by the Patriarch of Moscow to hold the throne: however his time was notable for famine, plot and instability. While I am not suggesting that we are entering a period as dire as this, when one asks the question, “Who is in control, really?”, the only honest answer is “no one”. David Cameron does not have the numbers, Gordon Brown does not have the authority, Nick Clegg’s relatively small mandate marks him as an also-ran. Our modern day British equivalent of the Patriarch of Moscow, the Queen, may have to make a judgement as to who can best lead. However it will be a guess, not a decision based on solid fact: a creaky political system that is not designed to cope with coalition government will reduce everything to estimates as to who can best survive. Yet the strongest party, and the one upon whom the charge of government may rest, wants to keep this system rather than abandon it for something more consensual and certain. It does not want to grow up and adopt the slow, deliberate bargaining between parties which is a fact of life throughout much of Europe.

I cannot see an administration with such a weak foundation lasting for long. I cannot see it being able to take decisive action insofar as the economy is concerned. I can see the electorate being subjected to even more wild swings of politics than we’ve experienced hitherto: this could lead to more demands for reform, or alternatively it could make the electorate so sick of politics that at the next time of asking, they may take an easier option and cement a party into place. This is perhaps the worst of this result: the election is theoretically over, however its machinations may carry on for months to come. We may be entering our own time of troubles; it’s possible that its resolution will not be to most people’s liking. One can hope that this can be avoided; if the electorate’s learning curve is ahead of the politicians, the demand for genuine change will outweigh petty manoeuvring at Westminster. On present form, however, this seems unlikely. The election is over, but it continues: a time for crossed fingers, sweaty palms and tense nerves is upon us.

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