To a kid whose vacation time meant being pelted with rain, playing on pitted concrete seemingly donated from the Battle of Stalingrad and flaying my legs raw on red ash football pitches, the green spaces of Hampshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire were paradise. Those summers spent staying with my sister were blisteringly hot. I’m sure it was on one of these excursions that I saw a heat haze for the first time, blurring the thick woodland, swaying the wheat fields and smudging vivid wild flowers decorating country lanes. Every image was rich, and remains tattooed on my mind.
The social element was no less enlightening. They had grass pitches down there, with nets on the goalposts. People lived in houses with stairs in them - and their own back gardens. Even my dad revelled in the relaxed atmosphere of the pubs, where you could sit with a drink at an outside table if you wished, without feeling like a hunted animal, or that it was some kind of alcoholic Grand Prix. You could take your family with you, and have something to eat... Together. This truly was a world of marvels.
On one long drive, I simply gaped out of the window, marvelling at the farmers’ fields, the immense blue skies and the sun-toasted red brick houses.
My older brother noticed my rapt attention, and laughed at it. “What are you staring at?” he sneered. “Don’t you get it? Most of the country is like this.”
I learned a bit about life from those early excursions into the English countryside. For one thing, I was a Scottish bastard. This and many other observations linked to my nationality were liberally distributed by some of the local kids, who had never heard such a funny accent before outside of Russ Abbot’s hilarious “See You Jimmy” character on television. It’s unlikely they had ever met someone from anywhere north of Norwich.
Thankfully, the unpleasant experiences did not dilute the good ones. But my brother’s crude dismissal – “most of the country is like this” – returned to me, unbidden, in my response to the General Election of May 7th.
Under the first-past-the-post system, the English electorate has decided to back the Conservatives’ austerity project, and approves of brutal public spending cuts and the demolition of essential services. That’s the bleakest assessment of the decision to increase support for the Tories and give David Cameron an outright majority.
A couple of years ago, I might have put a bet on a Conservative majority – not the £30,000 punt one Glasgow man took a fortnight ago, at odds of 6/1 – but things had appeared to be much tighter in the run-up to election day. Opinion polls (I know, I know) appeared to back this up. A week before the polls opened, I fully expected Ed Miliband to emerge from intricate coalition talks as the Prime Minister. The voters of England decided otherwise.
For left-leaning people living in England, it is a matter of some grief that David Cameron, Grant Shapps, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, George Osborne and many more will return to the business of front-line government, without the as-yet-unknown buffer effect of their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. We even have the looming spectre of Boris Johnson to contend with, after he duly trotted back into parliament in a safe seat. Cameron’s unexpected victory has delayed the current London mayor’s seemingly unstoppable progress to Number 10, but only by a couple of years at most.
They say that in the jungle, the most dangerous time is when the drums stop; the most frightening moment for the electorate regarding Boris is when he decides to brush his hair. That’s when we’ll know his time is coming.
I wasn’t pleased by the result, but, you know… I accepted it. This was the will of the people. No matter how galling it is to me and my politics, the Tories won the most seats, in the system that’s in place. People backed David Cameron’s performance and his economic policy. If you’re a fan of that stuff, there’s more of it to come. That’s politics. That’s democracy. And frankly, this is England.
A lot of Tories came out of the woodwork on that Friday morning to gloat about the election result, and quite rightly so. The choice of government has skewed right, and we have to accept that this reflects the mood of the country. Ukip pulled in a lot of votes; it’s not hard to see why, as their toxic views on immigration and our relationship with the EU were given coverage in the media way out of proportion to other parties.
A couple of the usual suspects on our newsstands have already blared out headlines regarding “human rights madness”. My heart sinks when I think of people swallowing this stuff, hook, line and sinker. The notion of ditching the European Convention on Human Rights from our legal framework and pulling out of the EU is quite frankly a disaster in waiting. It is driven by a neoliberal agenda which seeks to trample hard-won rights for workers, a fissile ideology fuelled by newspapers whose millionaire owners have lots to gain from such an outcome. The only “madness” involved is this near-demented desire to take Britain out of the EU. Somehow, this is seen as a good thing by a large proportion of our island.
David Cameron looked and sounded like a man who was fed up with his job during the election campaign. Stolid and uninspiring, he must have known a strange dissonance when he drove to meet the Queen on Friday May 8th, knowing that the election will go down in history as an immense personal triumph, but also knowing that he’d almost given up on being Prime Minister. He might even have been looking forward to sidling out the back door of Number 10 and going on holiday with Samantha and the kids - the intense, unbearable heat off at last.
It was an extremely strange decision to announce before the campaign began that he wasn’t interested in serving a third term in office, should he be successful in the 2015 poll. It smacked of a lack of ambition, if not outright disillusionment. And it didn’t just open the door for Boris; it practically strewed rose petals in his path, wafting palm fronds in his wibbly face.
So much has been made of the restaurant pact between Blair and Brown in the mid-90s, but I do wonder whether something similar is in place with the two Bullingdon Boys.
The Prime Minister has a tough job on his hands. He has a majority, but not a big one, and the genie is out of the bottle with regards to EU membership. If the Scots could have a referendum on membership of the union, then it must logically follow that the UK electorate must have a similar say on EU membership. Cameron will have to fight the right-wingers in his own party as well as stemming Ukip’s carcinogenic spread across the press to keep Britain in the EU. And he may also have to fight the English public’s strange thirst for separation, fuelled by decades of nonsense headlines about Europe. Over the years we’ve been given comic fiction classics in certain sections of the media, such as “Baa Baa Black Sheep being banned from schools” and “quotas introduced for bent bananas”, which are repeated in pubs and party conversations as gospel to this very day.
And that’s without addressing the question of immigration, which for many is
a perfectly reasonable desire if you’re British, have a bit of money and want to live in the sun or dodge your taxes, but in almost no other circumstances.
If Cameron truly wishes to retain EU membership and chooses to fight hard for it, this must be viewed as a great chance to decapitate Ukip. Nigel Farage’s party would be dead in the water if an EU referendum was run and the public came out in favour of staying in. Their raison d’etre being removed, Ukip would be destined for the same political wilderness as the unlamented BNP – Britain’s less refined voice of parochialism and outright racism.
I just have a horrid feeling that Cameron is fighting a losing battle; that this country will secede from the EU, and from there throw itself into the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States, which seeks to put corporations’ legal rights ahead of those of individuals. I fear we will sleepwalk into this. After a while, even the less contemplative among us might finally wonder why many of the rights which we now take for granted, such as sick pay, paid maternity leave, paid holiday entitlement and even Bank Holidays have been slowly, insidiously diluted or outright evaporated. By which time it’ll be too late.
This may not be the Tories’ end goal. But if you remove the legal safeguards, then you open the door to unpleasant outcomes.
I have no idea why the soft middle in England strives so hard to curtail its hard-won working rights and prospects. Just as I often wonder: why do people who are not millionaires vote Tory?
There are a variety of reasons. Much as the concept seems alien to people like me, some people have money and property, loads of it. They see the Conservatives as a better bet for helping them to hold onto these things, without surrendering more to the taxman than they’d like.
Others vote Tory because they think they are going to have a better life than the one they have now, with increased salary, a bigger house, a fancier car.
Some people call that “ambition” or “aspiration”. That’s absolutely fine – I wouldn’t mind these things, myself. For some individuals, though, “greed” would do just as well.
For others, the clue is in the title. They vote Conservative because they have a certain settled view of how their England should look and act – predominantly white, polite, with a Home Counties accent and desirous of cricket, warm beer, church fetes and a good Sunday roast. These are the type of people who bore us senseless with social media lists about “Englishness” every St George’s Day, gibbering about maypoles, queues and Bank Holiday rain, and also regurgitating paranoid nonsense about being “banned” from celebrating their patron saint’s day.
Many of these people will put “tea” on their “Englishness” lists, without a shred of irony.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating any of these things, of course, but if it’s married with a sense of grievance and entitlement, it’s a problem.
This attitude dovetails nicely with the growing appetite for leaving the EU. As a diplomat once quipped, when it comes to Europe, Britain sometimes behaves like a man who attends a key party without bringing his wife.
The Eurozone has its challenges, but the EU is not purely an economic concern. It was set up to stop European countries fighting each other, and if you think there could never be another European land war, I’d like to have some of what you’re smoking.
Britain may have joined the EU for economic reasons in the 1970s, and that landscape has changed; but it’s not all a matter of trade. There are also political and ideological reasons for being in fraternity with our European cousins. We have plenty to gain from the EU in terms of trade, but we can gain just as much through shared goals and close international ties.
Culturally, Britain could do with the exchange of ideas and inspiration, too. We might even improve our languages skills, which lag behind the continent to a shameful degree. Closed borders can be conducive to closed minds. The EU isn’t a bad idea. It was set up for sound reasons, after a couple of terrible wars – you know; those ones which are celebrated several times a year on these shores. To turn your back on that union, and all the trade and employment benefits it confers, is a very serious matter.
You may disagree. You may seek to raise legitimate concerns about immigration and (less likely) globalisation. Even so, I’m not sure blowhard millionaires, press barons and former City men like Nigel Farage are your best guides in this matter.
If you want a depressing insight into the insularity and basic unpleasantness of a sizeable minority of the British electorate and many of its democratically appointed representatives, look towards attitudes being openly aired towards those a little closer to home – slightly north of Berwick, if you please.
The gap between voting intentions in England and Scotland is now a yawning chasm. The differences have never been so stark. If Britain votes to leave the EU in 2017, then it is almost certainly the end of the United Kingdom.
Scotland will not vote to leave the EU. If England does, in the wake of the SNP’s stunning success in the 2015 general election, then it will trigger the end of the union.
The reaction in the English-based media to the SNP’s near-grand-slam in Scotland’s 59 constituencies has been depressingly predictable. There seems to have been consternation among some publications and the right-wing commentariat at the idea of Scotland sending its democratically-elected MPs to the national legislature, less than nine months since the country agreed to stay in the UK. A raising of the hackles, shall we say.
I can come to no other conclusion than some people think it is unfair that the SNP returned 56 members of parliament. Before the election, there were dark mutterings about Scotland “taking over”, especially with regard to the SNP’s entirely reasonable overture towards Ed Miliband: you want to be PM, and lock out the Tories, we’ll help you. Nicola Sturgeon was demonised in several publications, most notably and hypocritically in the Sun (English edition, of course; Murdoch does like to back a winner, so she was championed in the Scottish version). There was a sexist element to this. It was nothing short of an embarrassment for the idea of reasoned political discourse.
With the best will in the world, I can’t see this sabre-rattling from the establishment and some of its dimmer subjects as anything other than contempt for Scottish voices, Scottish culture, Scottish politics and Scottish self-determination.
Then there was that strange flowering of criticism over the electoral system. How monstrously unfair that Ukip should win so many votes spread across the country, but only return one MP, while the SNP have 56!
Well, you can’t complain too much - that’s the system you all voted for a couple of years ago when Nick Clegg attempted to introduce a more proportional system of representation. It was annihilated in a referendum. People might not remember that, as that not too many people seemed bothered enough about it to vote at the time.
Is the proposal now that we should have… another referendum? So soon after the first? What a novel idea. But by all means, yes – let’s keep going until we get the Right MPs.
The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood can point the way towards a fairer proportional system. With its secondary regional top-up vote, it ensures that there is representation for minority parties in Scotland such as the Greens, the Scottish Socialists and the Conservatives. This means plurality and fairness (excluding the fact that the parties choose who appear on their regional lists - not you). Not a bad idea, in principle. It was set up to avoid any party (which, back in 1999, meant Labour) flooding the chamber with first-past-the-post MPs. This had the specific design of making coalitions such as the original Lib-Lab deal being the norm at the expense of outright majorities.
The fact that the SNP smashed this paradigm and returned a majority in 2011 should have been a tip-off as to the incrementally increasing levels of support that party now enjoys, but no-one in England seemed to be paying attention.
Proportional representation might threaten absolute majorities for Tory governments at Westminster, though, so you can probably forget it ever happening.
Dissatisfaction with FPTP only became an issue because Scotland returned the Wrong Kind of MPs. When the Scottish map was red, this wasn’t deemed an electoral flaw. And of course, Scotland had 59 MPs in the last parliament too. What’s changed, I wonder?
Scots asserting themselves often leads to opprobrium, if not outright racism, among people who should really know better in England. Although the new and returning SNP members were a little juvenile in attempting to oust people like Dennis Skinner from their customary place on the green benches the other day, the message was loud and clear: we are not here to make obeisance to your petty conventions, and we’ll sit where we like.
In fact, it seemed to slip many people’s notice that the SNP were simply trying to fill the spots normally reserved for the third party at Westminster – and, by some distance, that’s the Scottish Nationalists.
Whether or not the SNP’s stunning “victory” will lead to its voice being heard in the chamber – I suspect people will simply make more of an effort to ignore it – thoughts will naturally turn to the possibility of a new independence referendum. Personally I think that bolt was shot last year, and it’s unfair to simply keep running referenda until you get the result you want. It was a close-run thing, and the Yes campaign performed heroically, but it was defeated.
“Once-in-a-generation” is about right. It’s unfair to continually dangle constitutional change over the entire union when the electorate in one country has already rejected it.
I’d insert one clause. If the rest of the UK decides to dump the EU, and Scotland doesn’t, then Scotland must get a fresh chance to go it alone. The case would be unanswerable.
As for Labour, I’ve stated before that their fascinating disintegration in Scotland has long been in train. I was still surprised at the swing towards the SNP in May; I would have predicted about 40 seats for the nationalists, 45 at best. Even that would have been an astonishing turnaround. It was in fact a vast underestimate.
The scale of Labour’s defeat would have been the stuff of satire if you’d suggested it to Scots voters in 1997 – or even any time prior to Donald Dewar’s death in 2000. The redoubtable gannet’s statue in Buchanan Street took on comic tones when faced with Nicola Sturgeon commanding the attention of thousands of people in its shadow. He looked disapproving, rather than disappointed, a Presbyterian schoolmaster trying to retain his dignity after losing control of the class. This look was mimicked among many of Labour’s big beasts as their heads rolled on the morning of May 8th; it’s how I imagine Ed Miliband will look in future if anyone asks him if he wants to play “paper, scissors… or stone?”
Labour’s national campaign strategist, Douglas Alexander, and the party’s Scottish leader, Jim Murphy – a man who spent roughly nine years in academia without gaining a degree - were the biggest exits for the opposition. We shouldn’t ignore all those other Labour members who suffered crushing defeats in seemingly safe parliamentary seats where, as the old saying goes, you could at one time have stuck a red rosette on a monkey and got it elected for Labour.
Where now for the party of our mothers and fathers? It has to become what it was set up to be. It has to reclaim the ground the SNP won from them – not thanks to anti-English, nationalist fervour, as so many still seek to claim, but on simple matters of policy and social democracy. And it needs a clear-out at the top, a complete firebreak from the Blair years. That goes for both sides of the border.
This is a pickle. Because, taking us back to the top, if Labour wants power across the UK, it’s going to have to tack to starboard. Tony Blair, who knew all about shifts to the right, was absolutely correct to say this. They have to become more Tory-lite – the quality which saw the party all but obliterated in Scotland.
Whatever happens in the next parliament – the EU referendum, Trident renewal, the NHS fighting for its life, more intrusive powers for the security services, and come on down, Boris Johnson! – we can be sure that change is on the way. The EU vote is key. If David Cameron can steer through EU reform and win a referendum on keeping the UK in, it will be a political masterstroke perhaps even greater than his victory of May 7th.
I have my doubts he’ll win it. Europe did for Thatcher, and it’ll almost certainly do for Cameron. Outside the party, there are too many mutterers and bitter ingrates lurking in every corner of the country, insular, poorly-informed and sometimes outright bigoted, and all too susceptible to right-wing bile in the press.
I dearly want to believe this is not the majority; after all, in terms of a share of the vote, most of the electorate actually didn’t vote for the Conservatives or their austerity project. The picture of what “most of the country” is like is distorted by first-past-the-post.
If people bother to vote in large numbers, we shall see what the reality is. Under a one-person-one-vote referendum, the flaw in the first-past-the-post system which gave David Cameron a majority – as well as, to be fair, returning 56 SNP MPs out of 59 Scottish seats - will be nullified.
I guess when it comes down a straight yes/no question on such a keenly contested issue, we really will find out what most of the country is like.
I still cling to the hope that middle England will come to its senses. I believe…I hope… that most of the country is not like this.