It never being too soon to teach the formative mind about the futility of hope, I recently gave a godson an educational box set. “All you need to know about the essential pointlessness of life,” I told him as the DVD began, “is here.” Cosmo, almost four and a half, asked after its name. “It’s name,” I said, “is Wacky Races.”
For anyone too old, too young or too pig ignorant about the high cultural canon to be familiar with the Hannah-Barbera classic, Wacky Races is history’s greatest cartoon. Some may prefer Top Cat (see below), whose intellectual friends got to call him TC, which is fair enough. Inevitably, the show being modelled on the comic genius of Phil Silvers’ Bilko, it too is very funny.
Yet Top Cat lacks its rival’s philosophical gravitas, as I explained when Cosmo asked why Wacky Races reigns supreme. The reason, I said, is that it is the finest metaphor for human existence yet created. A bunch of people – smart and dim, pretty and ugly, sane and crazy, nice and nasty – charge around like maniacs in search of a victory that means nothing, and ultimately get absolutely nowhere at all.
I wouldn’t ordinarily share such an intimacy, but these are not ordinary times. Within days of introducing the boy and his younger brother to the show, a case of Jungian synchronicity raised Wacky Races from the mists of a 1970s childhood and turned it into a general election issue.
While this election remains an electrifying quasi-sporting event for its uncertainty and dazzling range of potential outcomes, the campaign is shaping into a coma-inducing nightmare. It may be that others were as bad, or worse, but in the absence of anything that could technically be called “serious debate about issues which actually affect people’s lives”, it seems to revolve around four things: 1) The remorseless parroting of focus-grouped mantras which, on third hearing, have you eyeing the string at the top of the curtain rail for potential as a makeshift noose; 2) Street-by-street guerilla warfare in a few dozen marginals, where voters are micro-targeted with cynically tailored messages; 3) Ceaseless speculation about which of various possible governments will eventually emerge; 4) Political hypernerds like myself checking the internet every seven minutes for a new poll offering some sign that the stalemate might be broken.
So far, despite the odd outlier showing a mini-surge for one or other party, the polls are as sterile as the sloganeering. The two main parties are marooned in the mid-30s – that psephological Sahara where dreams of majorities go to die – with no reason to imagine any decisive movement in the month ahead.
In this barren desert, give thanks for one verdant oasis of polling creativity. Lord Ashcroft enlivens this clinical science by asking people not just how they intend to vote, and why, but also to compare parties and politicians to various things … pop singers, biscuits, a Friday night out, sexually transmitted diseases, cars, and so on. (I must have made one of those up. Biscuits, forsooth!). When, a while ago, it was cartoon characters, Nick Clegg was seen as dull but handsome Fred from Scooby Doo, Ed Miliband as Elmer Fudd, and David Cameron as the anti-hero of Wacky Races, Dick Dastardly.
Asked about this in an ITV interview on Monday, Cameron recalled watching Wacky Races as a lad. “I wanted to be the good-looking one with the beautiful girl, but it didn’t work out that way.” Passing lightly over his ungallant words about his lady wife, we remind Cameron of one of nanny’s old strictures: “I want never gets”. If he wanted to be Peter Perfect, the thoroughly nice chap behind the wheel of the Turbo Terrific and boyfriend of pouting Southern belle Penelope Pitstop, a pair of tough titties to him on that one. He reminds punters of a rakish, heavily moustachioed Edwardian panto villain with the snickering canine sidekick (though whether his Muttley is George Osborne or Lynton Crosby, or possibly the wretched Grant Shapps, Ashcroft failed to discern).
Considering that the pinkly sleek Cameron more closely resembles the late Irene Handl than the pencil-thin cartoon motorist, what can it be about this PM, you wonder, that hints at Dastardly? Did the distant memory that he named his car the Mean Machine make a subliminal connection to the Nasty Party? Did Ashcroft’s respondents recall that Dastardly, though the richest contestant with the most powerful car, had a gift for snatching defeat, Cameron 2010-style, from the gaping jaws of triumph? Perhaps they were aware that Dastardly’s undoing lay in him being far more concerned with laying traps for his rivals than driving his own race – just as viciously turning on Nick Clegg during the PR referendum has apparently undone Cameron by costing him the redrawn parliamentary boundaries that would give him a serious shot at a majority now.
Dastardly never won a Wacky Race, any more than Cameron ever won a general election, though like the PM he did once cross the line in first place. But on that occasion he was robbed of his success for cheating – an eerily prescient equivalent, political scholars will acknowledge, of Cameron winning the Scottish referendum, and losing the Union within an hour by floating “English votes for English laws” to set a spiteful trap for his rivals.
Small wonder Cameron cannot shrug off the perception that he is a trickster, a perpetual schemer, and all in all a bit of rogue. And so, thanks in part to that failure, the race for power meanders dementedly on, with all the frantic manoeuvring for position leading nowhere, and a pyrrhic victory the only prize on offer.
“Who won, who won?” Cosmo and his brother demand after each Wacky Race ends in abject chaos. If we are asking the same question on 8 May, and for a long time after, it will be the reward this stultifyingly robotic and negative campaign deserves.