It is not what happens in ordinary times that defines a country, but what happens in extraordinary times. For five days, Britain has been in political limbo – cut off from routine, as effectively as it was cut off physically by the cloud from an Icelandic volcano. Government only functioned courtesy of an understanding that the Prime Minister would remain in office until someone else was able to command a parliamentary majority. Yet the mood in the country veered from supreme detachment through preternatural calm to bemused engagement.
There was no rioting in the street. We did not have party leaders calling up rival militias to march down Whitehall in individual shows of strength, unless you count the processions in and out of the Cabinet Office. There was only a tiny "democracy village" camped in Parliament Square – and it was about stopping the war in Afghanistan rather than protesting against voting irregularities here.
No one dreamt of storming the state broadcaster. The military stayed out of it. Nor did Scotland exploit the power vacuum to make a summary declaration of independence (elsewhere, in similar circumstances, all these things have happened). There was a shared presumption that, however messy the process, things would sorted themselves out.
Even an exterior as civilised as this, however, was incapable of masking the raw politics played out between parties and individuals behind closed doors. If you exclude the tussles between government and trade unions in the 1970s and 1980s, these past few days have been as close as this country has come in my lifetime to a real, naked struggle for power.
In normal times, we have one of the speediest electoral turnarounds in the world: a three-week campaign, an overnight count, and the victor moves into No 10 the next day, within hours of the outgoing Prime Minister's departure. Not this time. The three-way split in the vote that left no one with an overall majority – and only one party within shouting distance of putting together even a two-party coalition – rendered every contingency redundant. We have had the excitement of watching politics made on the run, and the prepared scripts scattered to the wind. A fresh, ruthless, edge has returned to the political language lost in the silky obfuscation of New Labour.
As a foreign correspondent, I have seen how quite different countries have emerged from sudden power vacuums that could, in less ordered societies, have precipitated a descent into civil war. There were the thrilling revolutions of 1989 that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the three-day coup in Moscow in August 1991 that left Russia in the ascendant over Soviet communist power. In each country there were periods when no one was demonstrably in charge, when power was genuinely in play, and moves were made that decided the fate of a nation, even if they did not always seem so conclusive at the time.
Many of the recent vacuums have followed misfired elections: the epic stand-off that followed the US presidential election of 2000; Georgia's "rose revolution" of 2003; Ukraine's "orange revolution" the following year that brought thousands on to Kiev's Independence Square to demand a re-run, and the German election of 2005, when the sitting Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, refused for days to admit defeat, before grudgingly ceding to Angela Merkel.
In Georgia and Ukraine, unsustainable regimes tottered and fell in the face of charismatic leaders and a mass of aggrieved voters.
In the US, the constitution functioned but left disturbing questions: about the integrity of the vote, about mobs disrupting recounts, about the political complexion of the courts, and not least about the money that bought George Bush the advocacy of the top lawyers. How these national dramas played out said something about the nature and state of each country – and, as with the US, not all of it was complimentary. For all the national differences, however, there are rules that can be extrapolated and may well have been studied, in belated haste, by our own politicians as they negotiated into the small hours day after day.
The first and most fundamental must be: don't take the people for granted. Even in so-called "mature" democracies, such as ours, elections are treacherous territory for rulers. On that one day, power is beyond politicians' reach. One of the most heartening footnotes to this British election came from Lord Ashcroft, who admitted the televised debates had, to an extent, thwarted his efforts to pump up support in marginal constituencies. In giving leaders direct access to the voters, the debates had, he said, turned everything "topsy-turvy".
The second, for the principal players, is not to panic and not to concede prematurely. He who dares, usually wins. Al Gore's authority was undermined by his early concession. With his "big, open and comprehensive offer" on Friday afternoon, Mr Cameron seized the initiative and dictated what happened next. Nick Clegg always kept the sense that his party had the casting vote.
The third is never to lose sight of the objective. This is power, real power, that is at stake. Even in what foreigners like to call "dear old England", this is one time when no one can afford to be nice. Lose this battle, as party leader, and you have lost everything the election was about; everything you sought elected office for. And the chance may never come around again.Reuse content