David Cameron: Centrist

He and Clegg are posing as soul brothers. The Lib Dems and Tories look the same. What’s the point of British politics?

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes,” said the Dodo, but although the British general election was in some ways reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, it turned out the other way round. On the morning after the vote, nobody could claim prizes; at any rate, no one had won. Election Day had been confusing and embarrassing enough, with lines of voters turned away at the polling stations as they closed, and by the next morning, for the first time since 1974, we didn’t know who was going to form our new government.

Now that the dust has settled two weeks on, and we do have a government, bracing itself for the thankless task of clearing up the mess left behind by the last administration, it’s possible to look back at the election with detachment, if not satisfaction. David Cameron is prime minister—and the Conservatives are in a coalition for the first time since Churchill’s wartime government of all the parties. The deputy prime minister is Nick Clegg—even though the Liberal Democrats whom he leads had a most disappointing election.

But then so did all the parties. The Tories increased their tally, to make them the largest party in parliament. And yet their 10.7 million popular votes compares with the 14 million they won in 1992 (from a smaller electorate), while their 36 percent of the vote compares with their 44 percent under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, not to say their 49 percent under Harold Macmillan in 1959.

More bluntly, after 13 years of an increasingly discredited government, which had done everything from take the country into an unpopular and disastrous war in Iraq to preside over an artificial economic boom which went spectacularly bust, the Tories failed to win an election which seemed theirs for the taking only months ago. In the circumstances, Cameron must consider himself lucky to be in Downing Street.

Three weeks before the election there had been a spasm of “Cleggmania” (or Cleggstasy), after the first of the televised debates between the leaders, when Clegg had achieved the none-too-astonishing feat of appearing less wooden than Gordon Brown and less glib than David Cameron. For a while the Lib Dems raced up in the polls, touching 30 percent and regularly lying ahead of Labour. Alas, come Election Day and they slumped back to their usual level or slightly less, on 23 percent, and actually ended up with fewer MPs.

Even then, the worst result of the three must be Labour. They slumped to 29 percent of the total, their lowest share of the popular vote since the debacle of 1983, which itself was their worst share since 1922. After a squalid attempt to cut a deal and cling on to power, Gordon Brown resigned as prime minister—and announced his intention to leave his post as party leader in the next few months. The contest to succeed him will last until the autumn, and may (or may not) answer the question of whether the Labour Party now has any real purpose.

Behind the statistics lies a story. Despite the bafflement with which the result was greeted, maybe three-party politics and hung parliaments are natural enough. It could have been the dominance of two large parties—they shared more than 95 percent of the vote between them in the 1950s—that was aberrant. Maybe also the Tony Blair years, which are looked back on with distaste or even disgust by so many British people, were a freak event.

The much vaunted electoral miracle of New Labour was achieved by a kind of trickery, thanks to the collapse of the Tory vote, tactical voting, and Blair’s own brilliance in voiding politics of its contents, or taking the politics out of politics. One startling consequence was the collapse of voting turnout. The British were once enthusiastic voters, 84 percent of them going to the polls in 1950.

Over half a century, turnout fluctuated and declined, but was still 72 percent when Blair won his first election in 1997. Within four years it had collapsed, to 59 percent, one of the ways, it may be thought, in which Blair Americanized British politics. Since then it has recovered a little, and was 65 percent this month, but that’s still a long way behind other European countries: the last Dutch general election and the latest French presidential election brought out over 80 percent of eligible voters.

One other consequence of Blair was the way the parties all tried harder and harder to fight for a supposed center ground, which inevitably meant that they resemble each other more and more, culminating in the more than slightly ambiguous sight of Cameron and Clegg posing as soul brothers. The other question raised by the Blair years was whether politics itself has any purpose, and that question was not satisfactorily answered by this election. Could it be the electorate who won no prizes?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author, whose books include Yo, Blair! (Politico’s Publishing, 2007), The Strange Death of Tory England (Allen Lane, 2005) and The Controversy of Zion (Perseus Books, 1997), which won a National Jewish Book Award.