Andrew Marr: A little desperation? Bring it on

The three main parties are breaking apart, ideologically, from the middle ground
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The Independent Online

So Odin is angry, and has scattered his mighty grey wrath over Manchester for the sin of – what? Giving Nick Clegg equal airtime to Gordon Brown and David Cameron? The sky is full of grit and empty of political travellers: our first Ash Thursday. This isn't of course the first time that Iceland has intervened in the course of recent British politics, but compared to cod and banking, it's a pretty impressive exhibition of divine ire.

Research being the key to good journalism, I am happy to report that Icelandic mythology, apart from featuring black elves, a dragon called Nidhogg and an icy cow, rather nicely describes daily life as "Midgard" which means the "world of average human experience". Now that I'm based in Midgard, rather than Westminster, it has to be admitted that the detailed to and fro of the election campaign has become something of a blur, even an irritation.

There was an obvious explanation. This might be a close-looking election, and therefore interesting in a Coral, Paddy Power way, but there was nothing like the great division of ideology, or even ideas, that might get the pulse racing. Put it another way: for most middle-of-the-road, employed people there seemed not very much to hope for, and not very much to fear, whatever the result.

Now, after the party manifestos are out, and notwithstanding last night's events, that judgement looks out of date. Philosophically, there is a gulf between the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat manifestos. Those of us who hoped that we would be given a real electoral choice should from now on, perk up. It's happening.

The Conservative vision of the "big society" in which the state pulls back and does less, while civil groups of all kinds roll up their sleeves and move in, belongs to a different world to Labour's defiant defence of the big state, with its central direction behind new tailor-made services. The Liberal Democrats have always been less statist, but now they have ditched some of their higher-taxing, higher-spending policies, they are more nakedly so.

Belatedly, the great crash has made the party thinkers, including people like Oliver Letwin for the Tories and Labour's Ed Miliband, go back to political basics. The scale of the financial repayment means either that the old arrangement between state and people needs to be radically rethought (the Conservative view, with some support from the pro-localist Lib Dems) or that the state needs to march on even more aggressively, holding our hands through the tough times ahead.

Take those differences seriously and they lead, over the next decade, to radically different versions of Britain. The Tories have to explain where their fellow countryfolk are going to get the time, energy and organisational skill to take over schools, police authorities, hospitals and much else. Yes, there are interesting examples of working class self-organising (see London Citizens, for instance) and yes, there is a vigorous middle class world of voluntary and charity work. But in a world where family budgets are under pressure, and people are frightened of losing their jobs, and fearful for their pensions, where is the time and energy to be found when the state withdraws? Won't it mean a few more self-confident, better-off areas, and others declining still further?

This huge switch in how the country's run is the biggest Tory idea, dwarfing plans for Westminster reform. If you take it seriously, it is Thatcher-sized. Given that the public sector will be under intense pressure, it is more confrontational than David Cameron would perhaps like us yet to realise.

Labour, meanwhile, betting heavily on a strong recovery, would still have to find very big sums in taxes and cuts to maintain the welfare state it partly created and vociferously defends. It, too, would have to deal with belligerent public-sector unions, cutting the jobs and pensions of its natural friends and supporters. We know much more about what a Labour future would look like because, in part, we're already living in it.

Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, had seemed closer and closer to leftish thinking in the past few years – keen on higher spending, bullish on higher taxes. Hard times have caused a bonfire of their costliest commitments, though they are, by their own admission, now more redistributive than Labour. They are probably closer to the party that Lloyd George knew (and smashed up) than at any stage in recent political history.

The first phase of the election campaign was dominated by abstract-sounding rows about national insurance and what the parties might spend, or cut, depending on this and that, some time in the future. Back in Midgard, we kept being told rather desperately that these were "symbolically important" matters. To most they just seemed baffling. Now we are into new phases. We have the Americanised spectacle of leader debates – welcome, I think – oddly conjoined to an argument about hung parliaments more familiar to Europeans. With nobody yet breaking through in the polls, the parties are showing the first signs of more risk-taking. A little desperation? Bring it on.

But none of it matters very much if they are really so close to each other as we've been led to believe. I think they are now breaking apart, ideologically, from that middle ground. Why are we not having that spelt out more dramatically? Because of those niggly, niddly little focus groups and swing constituency polling, telling the leaders not to frighten horses, small children or timidly dithering voters. It may seem good tactics: general elections are won in clusters of constituencies, not in "the nation". But it's bad political strategy because muffling the real choices turns off voters, chokes argument – and incidentally will make government much harder for whoever wins.

The divides are real. How we vote this time matters hugely. I loved the symbolism of a lava flow in Iceland shutting the skies used by the party leaders to criss-cross Britain: we really don't know what will happen next. Nor do they. And for that – hooray.

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and author