December elections are a bad idea. Never mind politicians talking rot — the ludicrous promises, the ludicrous numbers — it’s the lack of light and the foul weather that is making this one so bleak. People should be out of their houses, having lively conversations in the daylight, queuing for public meetings, hammering placards on to fences or alongside fields. But my impression is that most of us are staying at home, curtains drawn, harvesting insights from bloggers and news bulletins. The country feels crotchety and antisocial.
I’m interested in the parallels with the December 1923 election. Back then, a Conservative prime minister, lacking his own mandate, risked going to the country. Against a depressed economic background, the great issue was tariffs, which Stanley Baldwin’s opponents claimed would raise food prices. In Ramsay MacDonald, the Tories faced a Labour opponent they dismissed as too extreme to be a real threat. MacDonald is remembered now as the turncoat who became an almost-Tory himself; but in 1923 he was seen as a pacifist, enemy of the Empire, a quasi-Bolshevik menace. Ninety-six years ago, the Tories badly miscalculated and, with this last unforced winter election, lost their majority. The Liberals were on the way down and Asquith allowed Labour in, assuming MacDonald would be a disaster. True, his minority government didn’t last long. He lost to Baldwin in 1924. Then, as now, repeated general elections were a cardiograph of a system under strain. Then, as now, we were obsessed by Russian plots — the Zinoviev letter, rather than oligarchs and St Petersburg bots. But the bigger picture was that MacDonald’s Labour showed it could govern. In many ways, that winter election of 1923 was an essential precursor to 1945. As more and more younger voters registered in the last weeks, it would be foolish of Tories to dismiss a Jeremy Corbyn premiership as impossible. The polling is against him, but he’s surprised us before.
At least in 1923, the rival politicians enjoyed a relatively mild and dry winter campaign. As I write this, staring at saturated leaden skies, it’s impossible to know whether more flooding is coming soon to the north and the Midlands. But if it does, it will have a political impact. I’m reading a new book about recent inundations in England and Wales, The Great Flood: Travels through a sodden landscape by Edward Platt. He’s on to something. From the West Country to the Fens, Northumberland to the Home Counties, flooding is becoming a much more common experience. It poses sudden questions about the role of the state which most politicians stumble to answer. And that brings up another aspect of this election which is unfamiliar. For millions of people, the real political issues are less about class than our behaviour in an age of global warming — vegetarianism, holidays by plane, population numbers. The main parties are adapting but haven’t yet got this properly in focus; so we are arguing about tax rates and public borrowing while the public are thinking about other things entirely.
My Sunday job is to ask questions; but in this campaign there is a line of criticism of television interviewing which makes me pause. The rise of misnamed social media (mostly Twitter) makes it all too easy to clip and post ‘Gotcha!’ moments, when a politician appears to be gasping for air at a particularly pertinent question. Two or three such moments now win the wearisome accolade of ‘a car crash interview’. So (goes the criticism) interviewers are under increasing pressure to skew their shows that way — go for cheap shots, get them online, and hope they go viral. I admit it’s a temptation. But as compared with fact-primed, carefully planned and constructed interviews — of the kind Andrew Neil does — to go for ‘car crash’ moments would be folly and a disgrace. It’s a temptation (just wallow in the Twitter applause) which must be resisted. If I’ve fallen into it, I hereby apologise. And after all, the single most watched and damaging television interview of recent times, Emily Maitlis with Prince Andrew, contained no showmanship on Emily’s part whatsoever. There is nothing more effective than the right question at just the right moment, calmly put.
I have been enjoying the new BBC series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials — and have just acquired a daemon of my own. Baxter is a labrador-retriever cross, now four months old. He is teething and has reduced the contents of our house to a Sahara dust of chewed fragments; but I am hopelessly besotted. Baxter and I spend many hours staring at one another in a silence profound enough to drown out election nonsense. And he requires daily early-morning walks. Not for the first time, I’ve noticed that the weather is almost always at its best shortly after dawn. Does anyone know why this might be?
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