Such is the division in the country that the election may not produce a lasting government and we may face another within months – as happened after the vote in December 1923, writes Bill Jamieson.
Why on earth are we moaning? As we go to the polls today, we should by rights be celebrating the most vibrant, full-on and engaging election campaign in history.
For years, political pundits moaned about our apathy, our lack of engagement, superficial media coverage of “the big issues” and poor representation of minority views.
Yet today there has never been such comprehensive coverage of politics, wall-to-wall, 24/7 with TV election debates and audience participation; once-deferential interviewers turned into ruthless interrogators with all the guile of piranhas; no end of analysis, graphs and bar charts; dissident Labour and former Tory MPs given air time; leadership gaffes repeated endlessly, fact-checkers on overtime, minority parties given generous exposure, reports from marginal constituencies we’ve never heard of; “vox pops” in every TV news item – and all this over five weeks when some previous election campaigns were confined to three!
For geeks who for years have urged full-on politics to inform the voters, what’s not to like? But this dream world of political nerds has left voters in a sour and sceptical mood. The longer it’s gone on, the more disenchanted we’ve become. Street interviews reveal many voters saying they are still undecided, but how could they possibly be?
Seldom has so much been pledged by all the main parties: billions more for schools and the police; tens of billions more for the NHS; hundreds of billions more for infrastructure projects. Yet are we grateful for this all-encompassing campaign and the most extensive media coverage ever? Do we believe a word of it? A report from the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising this week found that at least 31 political advertising campaigns during the UK general election have been dishonest or untruthful.
Childish, tedious, exhausting, scary
So instead of engagement, trust – or the lack of it – has become a big issue. And millions of us can’t wait for this election to be over.
Have we been more richly informed or intelligently engaged? Not to judge from the eve of voting commentary this week: “This is the most shallow and dismally mendacious election campaign I can remember” was the bold headline on a piece by one regular and experienced political columnist.
“What a horrible election,” wrote another. “Far too long, scrappy, fractious yet timid, nerve-wracking, childish, tedious, exhausting, scary, vindictive, ugly. It feels like the Hundred Years’ War. Can they just make it stop?”
Not according to some of the prognostications of what we can now expect: long and tortuous negotiations over trade and tariff arrangements with our biggest trading partners, the EU and the US; further battles over immigration policy and “full regulatory alignment” or the lack of it with Brussels.
And we will still be unsure until the exit poll announcement around 10pm this evening at the earliest whether the result will be a hefty majority for Boris Johnson or one so slim as to leave us with a hung parliament, with the government dependent on fractious arrangements with minority parties. What resolution can be open for us other than a repeat of 1923 – and yet another election (Heaven spare us) within months?
What a prospect for millions eagerly staying up well after midnight, eagerly awaiting, like the French Revolution women knitting at the foot of the guillotine, waiting for the heads of the political aristocracy to roll. The 1997 question – “Did you stay up for Portillo?” – looks set to be repeated in the early hours of Friday.
Such has been the multiplicity of division exposed by this election, it is hard to see an early resolution or “coming together”. This contest has not so much provided an escape valve for political differences as ramped them up.
Neither the SNP nor the Democratic Unionist Party are likely to back down from the positions they have taken; eurosceptics will fight tooth and claw over any accommodation with Brussels.
A post-election mini-boom? Business confidence will still be vulnerable – and this with the economy already suffering its worst three months for more than a decade after ONS figures this week revealed output failed to grow once again in October. It was the weakest three months since early 2009.
Rather than this full-on election bringing about a reconciliation, let alone an uplift in our national spirit, it may have left us as confused and divided as ever.