Many uncertainties surround the May 7 general election towards which 46 million British voters are now shuffling with a singular lack of enthusiasm. For one thing, no clear winner seems likely to emerge. For another, no one is certain whether or not the election will split Great Britain into two or more separate countries.
The choice of leaders is also uninspiring. With their clean-cut features and sharp-cut dark suits, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, Labour’s Ed Miliband whose favourite sentence is “When I am Prime Minister” and who notoriously did his brother out of the job, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Nick Clegg, Cameron’s coalition partner and Deputy Prime Minister, resemble dummies in the same upmarket tailor’s shop.
Even they can get confused. Anyone who goes to bed with Nick Farage, says Cameron, would wake up with Miliband. Farage’s loud striped suit and velvet-collared overcoat betray the outsider. He leads the United Kingdom Independence Party and is author of ‘The Purple Revolution’ which has been called “the most inspiring book since Mein Kampf”.
This is the promiscuity of the coalition politics India suffered – or savoured – for 35 years until Narendra Modi appeared on the horizon. The empire has struck back. But only Clegg publicly admits there can be no clear winner. A friend from my old university, who works for the BBC, wistfully wishes a stable coalition were on offer on voting day. The Cameron-Clegg government was Britain’s first coalition in 64 years. Now, it could be the pattern of the future.
Continental Europeans won’t be surprised. One reason they kept Britain out of Europe for so long was the conviction that the Indian connection had left Britain somewhat less than European. Television addiction is a shared taste. Harold Wilson’s nervousness that Labour voters would prefer Steptoe and Son, a popular sitcom, to voting in the 1964 election reminded me of India coming to a standstill when Doordarshan screened Mahabharat. Wilson asked Sir Hugh Greene, the BBC’s director-general, to screen something else. “Greek drama, preferably in the original” would be ideal. He knew Labour taste. In the event, Greene postponed Steptoe and Son to nine o’clock, when voting ended, giving Labour its first government in 13 years.
Parliament has changed drastically. The only non-white face in the House of Lords in the sixties was the elegantly draped Bapsy, Marchioness of Winchester. The gossip was she haunted the peeresses’ gallery because her bedsitter didn’t have central heating. I returned to the Lords the other day with Giles, Lord Radice, whose father had been a Calcutta businessman and whose grandfather was in the ICS. It was full of South Asians revelling in being called “My Lord” and “My Lady”. A bearded man in cap and loose pyjamas in the Lords’ tea room was a community leader from a small Lancashire town.
The new India, tax-dodging and corner-cutting, matches the new Britain. When a London daily mounted a sting operation against a rising Liberal Democrat suspected of being less than candid about his election kitty, the reporter posed as a successful but not very scrupulous Indian businessman. Gifts of more than £7,500 have to be disclosed to the Election Commission. But our make-believe Indian was prepared to issue backdated cheques and route donations via fictitious ‘cousins’, although the law forbids the use of intermediaries “to evade the controls on permissibility and transparency.” A senior Treasury official had promised to “open doors” for the obliging donor and was “very helpful” with contacts.
The swings and the merry-go-round sometimes balance each other. Earlier, the Tories acquired a member of the European Parliament who neatly switched sides on the day the UKIP suspended him for “a number of extremely serious issues – which include unanswered financial and employment questions.” UKIP’s present worry is over-charging £3,150 for an event that cost £950. A Lib Dem grandee, Lord Strasburger, quit after revelations regarding undercover businessmen. Labour’s problem is seriously semantic. Having denounced the Tories as the “party of Mayfair hedge funds and Monaco tax evaders”, Miliband must explain his connection with a hedge fund boss who gave Labour £600,000 in three years.
Messrs Cameron and Osborne claim the Tories reduced taxes. They didn’t, retorts Miliband. If they did, boasts Clegg, it was only because of Lib Dem pressure. Together, the two big parties may not account for more than 60 per cent of the May vote.
The last opinion poll showed that 40 per cent of voters hadn’t made up their minds. UKIP, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh party, have improved their bargaining power as they wait to strike a bargain. Scottish independence is up for sale to the highest bidder, with the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon publicly supporting Labour and privately preferring the Conservatives. Once upon a time, idealistic Angry Young Men grieved “there were no brave new causes left.” Causes are irrelevant now.
The only issue with the potential to arouse passion is also one the British firmly reject. They know Farage’s creed could do infinite damage to the fabric of a nation that takes such pride in the remains of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, being ceremonially reburied in England’s most multicultural city.
Even Leicester’s Sikhs and Muslims profess admiration for the dead monarch whom Shakespeare vilified. Immigrants,whether from the Commonwealth (as in the past) or the European Union (as now) may be an irritant, but few will betray British tolerance and hospitality by voting for UKIP.
While the play and players are at sixes and sevens, there is ambitious talk of rebuilding the theatre. Some want the new Houses of Parliament to be located outside London. Manchester, the region Osborne’s budget promises to develop as the “Northern Powerhouse”, is one possibility.
Although Greater Manchester is solidly Labour, nestling in its southern folds is the safe Tory constituency of Tatton that the Chancellor represents. If Mamata Banerjee can invent Duronto expresses for Calcutta, why shouldn’t a British minister take Westminster to his constituency?
There hasn’t been much discussion yet on what the new Parliament should look like. But when the present Houses were built after the devastation of the Second World War, Churchill strongly opposed a circular chamber such as our Lok Sabha. He wanted parallel rows of seats separated by the length of two swords so that warring parliamentarians couldn’t lunge fatally at each other.
This wasn’t only slavish dependence on tradition. Churchill was convinced it was easier for defectors to slide along a circular bench than to run the gauntlet of crossing the floor. Having twice turned his coat, he knew what he was talking about.
But round or rectangle, with or without defections, a new age of political adventure lies at the end of an election that might also decide whether Britain is one country or several. That, too, sounds familiar, as the British wait for their own Narendra Modi to rescue them from coalitions.