If an election is a battle for the soul of a country, the question one's left asking after this election is whether Britain in 2010 has a soul to battle over. Where were the big ideas? Where was the conviction of high purpose? Where was the heart?
The Tories trumpeted “change,” which is hardly a purpose, and alluded intermittently to “the great society,” a concept that amounted to no more than letting people do what government no longer had the stomach or the cash for. The Liberal Democrats rode in with some success on the Tories' “change” ticket, since they could be said to be offering a change from both parties, but their only justification for change was “fairness”—a smaller, more querulous thing than justice. And New Labour forgot what it was for entirely, campaigning desperately at the last merely to keep the other parties out. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. Not exactly a big idea.
So what has this election been about?
Television, is one answer. This is the year British politics went presidential, the three party leaders—Cameron for the Conservatives, Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, and Gordon Brown for New Labour—agreeing for the first time to a series of televised debates. It would be no exaggeration to say that these debates seized the attention of the country as little else has since Tony Blair smiled the Tories out of power in 1997. What they showed us of our political leaders that we hadn't seen already is hard to say. Perhaps the simple gladiatorial nature of the debates, the three of them toe-to-toe, no matter how many ground rules restricting combat had been laid down, energized us. Perhaps we were relieved to seem them answering one another rather than the inquisitors of the media, who have grown as predictable as those they inquisition. Or, most likely, the debates picked up where Britain's Got Talent and the X-Factor left off: We were doing what television has accustomed us to do, scrutinizing contestants for their likeability.
Weighing in with a likeability factor not everyone knew he had, Nick Clegg became an instant star, dulling not only Gordon Brown, which, by his own admission, isn't hard to do, but also dulling the would-be glossy Cameron too, and thereby throwing the contest for change wide open. We should have seen this coming. It had been clear for a long time, both from polls and the tenor of public conversation, that although the country was weary after 13 years of New Labour—two unpopular wars, the scandals involving MPs and their expenses, the meltdown of the banks and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor—it couldn't get itself excited by the Conservatives. Same old same old to replace same old same old doesn't get the pulses racing. Enter Nick Clegg. He looked good on television, and that was enough, in a medium which isn't friendly to ideas, to start the country thinking that it could make a change without that change having to be too drastic. Clegg was a break from Labour but not a break too far. And not a break too far from Cameron either, both Clegg and Cameron being ex-public school boys possessed of that born-to-govern air which we thought had vanished from British political life but which has made a surprise return, not impossibly as a reaction against the grasping entrepreneurial spirit of the new money men. Perhaps without realizing it, the British are slowly crawling back to the old idea that a member of the landed gentry has less reason to be greedy than, for example, a Tony Blair, and will therefore serve us more disinterestedly.
The charm debates saw Gordon Brown off, anyway. Intellectually, he ran away with at least two of them, but television is cruel to intellect. Throughout this campaign Brown was ill-served by his advisors, who tried to make a grinning Malvolio of him, when his strength is a cold, disapproving clarity. "This may have the feel of a TV popularity contest," he unwisely conceded in the third debate, so "if it's all about style and P.R. count me out." Since it was all about style and P.R—hadn't Blair made New Labour all about style and P.R.?—that amounted to a technical knockout delivered by himself. You don't monkey about with television. You accept its rules or you stay well clear of it.
By the time of that third debate, Brown was already a wounded man, again partly as a result of an act of self-harming, this time his failure to check whether his microphone was off when he called a woman we'd just seen him Brown-nosing on television "bigoted." Known thereafter as Bigotgate, this incident roused the British press to levels of sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy unusual even by its standards. If soul had been lacking from the campaign so far, here finally it was: pretend blue-collar Britain outraged by this elitist attack on one of its own.
The issue was immigration, a touchy subject in Britain at any time, but especially vexed in places where the Polish population is high and job prospects are low. The woman whom Brown called a bigot instantly became another Boadicea for daring to say what every true born Brit was thinking. Her actual question was, "All these Eastern Euopeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?" Some commentators went so far as to call this small-minded complaint magnificent in its baffled oratory, the eloquence of an ordinary person speaking out of her ordinary pain. In fact, bigotry is a perfectly good word for it. But you cannot call the people pig ignorant, no matter how pig ignorant they are. And rather than stick to his guns, Brown recognised his blunder and set about Brown-nosing her again.
Much of the small-talk of this election has been about numbers, the unfairness of our “first past the post” electoral system which can put a party with the smaller popular vote in power. But Bigotgate was the moment to despair over the very principle of democracy itself. “The people stink,” Bill Maher said in an interview with Larry King a couple of months ago, when Obama's health care plans were stuck fast in the mud of uneducated populism. In fact, it probably isn't the people themselves who stink, but those who interpret them to themselves. Certainly the fourth estate has acquitted itself badly throughout this election, seizing enthusiastically on popular prejudice, going out of its way to discredit Clegg the moment he appeared a threat, and issuing thundering warnings of the moral and financial catastrophe that awaits a hung parliament.
As for the people, with hardly any time left before polling, almost half the country still claims it’s yet to make its mind up. Indecision is a respectable political position. It, too, is entitled to representation. So if a bit of this and a bit of that is what the country wants, because no party is offering a package, let alone a vision, enough of us can feel wholehearted about, then a hung, tentative, and suspenseful parliament will be the truest reflection of its state of mind.
Howard Jacobson is the author, most recently, of The Act of Love.