Matthew Norman: The fine tradition of British apathy

We have a powerful self-image of ourselves as cussed and militant. Nothing could be further from the truth

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With the Budget safely delivered and six relentless weeks of screeching and counter-screeching ahead, grading the horrors to come is a tricky and subjective affair. To some, the vision of Tony Blair feigning lachrymose empathy for the careworn mother of an autistic child will turn the stomach quicker than Michael Howard cuddling mocha toddlers in a sink estate nursery school. Others will cry out for the sick bowl instantly on hearing Paul Boateng trying to steamroller John Humphrys, but may wait a few minutes in the hope that the feeling passes when Ann Widdecombe is wheeled into the Today studio to attempt the same.

It is entirely a matter of personal taste, but what I dread most - more even than whichever act of imbecility John Prescott has in store for us this time - are the denunciations of the alleged evil that is voter apathy. From a government with its Calvins in a frightful twist about traditional supporters not bothering on 5 May, we may safely anticipate a torrent of prissy lectures about the central importance of casting that vote.

Already this year, Mr Blair has addressed this complaint on the daytime TV sofa - an oddly homeopathic approach, you may think, since the essence of voter apathy is the preference for staying in watching daytime telly rather than strolling to the ballot box. He is exceedingly keen, he insists, that we exercise our democratic right at the ballot box.

Whether this approach is evidence of hypocrisy or obtuseness, I'm not sure. But the plain fact is that voter apathy is the closest political ally Mr Blair has left. Certainly, it is an instinct he has carefully nurtured among his own MPs since May 1997, and only last week those not madly in love with the terrorism legislation were invited by their whips to show some voter apathy and steer clear of the lobbies.

It is only a rarefied form of this same "problem" that has allowed Mr Blair to survive. Had his backbench voters been less apathetic when it came to voting for their most cherished principles, he would have been defeated over tuition fees and the invasion of Iraq, and Pickfords would have been in and out of Downing Street long before the Blairs had bought that elegant town house in Connaught Square.

Of course, the desire for a quiet life is hardly confined to those craven careerists to whom the lavish expenses and sense of self-importance that go with the letters M and P outrank anything so trivial as their dearest beliefs. In a bold bid to hasten his Cabinet recall, the gallant David Blunkett has this week been mostly sharing his thoughts on our national character. Yet, like John Major before him, with his drippy drivel about old maids cycling through the morning mist, the one great national characteristic Mr Blunkett avoided mentioning was apathy.

The British must, I think, be the most diffident people on Earth. We have a powerful self-image, rooted in the Blitz, of ourselves as fantastically cussed and militant, but nothing could be more misleading. For all the endless whining on radio phone-ins, we will put up with anything. If the chaos of the London Underground was replicated in Rome or Madrid, passengers would smash up the trains.

Here, the odd insult misdirected at some poor, bedraggled ticket collector is as far as it goes. If the medieval grotesqueries of many NHS wards infected the hospitals of Paris, mobs would gather around the health ministry to overturn government cars. Here, even Mrs Bottomley was never physically attacked. In Britain, we whine about the pernicious spread of speeding cameras. When these one-eyed monsters started appearing in northern Italy, public-spirited young people developed the exciting new sport of shooting the lenses with long-range telescopic rifles. The modern spirit of Britannia is best captured by the hen-pecked husband who agrees with his wife that the food and service at Fawlty Towers is intolerable; and then, when the proprietor asks if everything's alright, replies: "Oh yes, thank you, absolutely fine."

The glorious side to this stoicism can be seen in old Pathe News footage of charred East Enders standing outside the rubble where their homes had so recently stood, cheering Mr Churchill and waving their tiny Union Jacks. The inglorious aspect is that, barring a psephological miracle, we will soon blithely return to power a man whom most of us have privately convicted of taking his country to war on a lie, the gravest offence available to a democratic leader.

If that is something the country is prepared to overlook, it's true that occasionally some comparatively minor perceived outrage causes the long-dormant volcano of British rage to belch out a few menacing plumes of smoke. In a new Demos paper, the journalist Kirsty Milne argues that single-issue campaigns - set alight by protesters and fuelled by the press - have been a strong feature of the Blair years. In a sense, she is correct. Newspaper-sponsored votes on an EU referendum, for example, have had huge responses (albeit less so than Big Brother) and displays of militancy over petrol prices and fox hunting spooked the Government.

In 2001, meanwhile, something intriguing happened in the Midlands seat of Wyre Valley, where retired consultant Richard Taylor unseated a Labour minister on the single issue of Kidderminster General's future. For a moment, Dr Taylor's triumph seemed to presage a brave new world in which the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the downright furious would circumvent the conventional system and reinvigorate the democratic process. Four years on, and what? I will do a delirious, Portilloesque lap of honour round the garden if George Galloway wins Bethnal Green, but with all due respect to Respect, candidates not affiliated to a large, well-organised party are generally regarded as tending towards the exhibitionist and eccentric.

In Blackadder's rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, it was Ivor Biggun of the Standing At The Back Dressed Stupidly And Looking Stupid Party, and while the late and genuinely lamented Lord Sutch always did better than Mr Biggun's zero votes, as did Jimmy Goldsmith in Putney, the image of the soloist candidate as a show-off is so deeply implanted that very few, however just and strongly held their cause, will risk making a spectacle of themselves in a general election.

Many of us will quietly thank God that the decisive single issue remains a British rarity. Even the briefest flare-up of abortion as a potential election factor sends a shiver down the spine, recalling as it does how Christian fundamentalists in the mid-West returned George Bush to the White House on a record popular vote. A little voter apathy there wouldn't have been a terrible thing.

Here, the relationship between elector and government has come to mirror that between customer and high street bank. We don't much care for it, and resent being ripped off, but changing to another when they all seem to be offering much the same deal seems like too much bother when there's telly to be watched.

So come 5 May, perhaps as many as half the population will stay in with Richard and Judy, or Des and Mel, rather than flip over to Tony, Michael and Charlie. And if, on 6 May, the Prime Minister takes to the daytime sofa again to express his joy that "an historic third term" has "drawn a line under Iraq", only adding how disappointed he is by the unprecedented voter apathy, pay special attention to his eyes. I suspect they'll be twinkling.

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