Matthew Norman: It's the geriatrics wot will win the Ovaltine Election

This is not a young country, but a very old one that is feeling its age more than ever
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The Independent Online

So now we have a clue. The race semi-officially begun on Monday night will, if that chancellors' debate is any guide, be an Ovaltine election.

Change itself can be given a warm beverage and put to bed for a nice long nap. Change is just sooooo passé now. It sounded groovy for a while, what with Obama and all. But that was two years ago, when the dog days of affluence left room for doctrinal economic distinction, and the future looked less scary than the past. By necessity the age of consensus has returned, bringing with it an aversion to frivolity unknown here for a very long time. We don't want fancy promises and smart-arse soundbites any more. What we do want, without exactly being lied to about the prognosis, is to be soothed by something comfortingly old hat.

If the debate between Alistair Darling, Vince Cable and George Osborne revealed any more than the need for a dollop of butter to grease a Rizla between them on economic policy (a weeny tax bribe here, a smidgeon of help for small business there), it's that grey is the new black; that mannerly tedium is the new rock'n'roll; that retro-seriousness is the new cool; and that old, above all, is the new young.

Boy George's killer problem, as it will be for Nick Clegg and to a smaller extent David Cameron next month, is that he looked like a boy. He didn't sound like a boy (or only once, when teased about the national insurance cut). As with Sarah Palin in her debate with Joe Biden, all he had to do to survive was avoid wetting his pants, projectile vomiting over the audience, or spontaneously developing Tourette's and referring to the "f****** huge deficit those Labour w*****s will leave behind." This modest task he achieved. He sounded, by and large, like an adult.

But as everyone knows from sweaty-lipped loser Nixon beating JFK in the ears of radio listeners, a televised political debate isn't an aural event. In the absence of a sensational zinger or cataclysmic gaffe, the words matter little. Image and tone are all, and there the contrast with two such zeitgeistily grizzled old-timers as Darling and Vince was a crippler.

"The Quotable Gordon Brown" wouldn't be a weighty book, or indeed leaflet, but the Prime Minister did manage the most memorable one-liner of recent years with "no time for a novice". Unquestionably this hit a spot (one sited within David Miliband's scrotal sack), but you could go further and make it a positive. This is a time for the reassuringly venerable.

Now that he's so eyebrow-raisingly restored to the campaign trail, even the veteran Mr Tony Blair won't try to persuade us, as he did in 1997, that this is a young country. It wasn't then, and it certainly isn't now. Whatever allure ersatz modernity once held vanished with all those newfangled derivate instruments that put Maserati keys in the pockets of boys like George.

Monday's studio audience was dominated by bright young professionals of just the sort who probably aspired to own flashy cars a few years ago. So what made the debate so pleasing, along with the old-fashioned dullness and courtesy, was their concentration and the precision of their questions. These thirtysomethings seemed even more serious than the three men on stage.

This is a good thing. So is the fact that C4's viewing figures rose steadily throughout, according to an incongruously faddish tweet from moderator Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Whether despite the lack of pyrotechnics or better still because of them, the TV audience doubled from one million to two, which hints at the public's fatigue with babyish gotcha politics. I know that's a claim routinely made before every election, but the stubborn refusal of opinion polls to be shifted by Bullygate, Ashcroftgate, Lobbygate and anything else from the garden portal warehouse suggests that this time it is a fact. The pre-election public is as sombre and focused as I can ever recall.

The plague-on-both-your-houses ennui in the air, richly deserved though it is, shouldn't be confused with apathy or indifference. People are listening with real intensity for clues as to whom to entrust the fiscal savagery ahead, if not to the intricate policy detail. Judging by Gordon's presumably focus group-driven pledge to keep Mr Darling in situ, and the stellar approval ratings for Mr Cable and Ken Clarke, what they want is maturity, reliability and familiarity.

This is not a young country, as I said, but a very old one feeling its age more than ever now that the spectre of bankruptcy has thrown the profligate juvenilia of Mr Blair's great power posturing into sharp relief. Like all countries, it looks to a potential government to reflect its perception of itself.

So were I David Cameron, which seems unlikely, I'd look to the example of Butlin's and create the political equivalent of one of those Monsters of Rock weekends where surviving members of The Sweet and Mud reprise their hits for devoted Seventies nostalgists. I'd have Sanatogen sponsor a minibus, and fill it with as many revered, pre-expenses scandal oldsters as could be press-ganged.

In this renaissant spirit of cultivated civility, Douglas Hurd, who turned 80 a few weeks ago, would be excellent; Lord Carrington, 92 in June, better still. If a babe in arms is thought necessary to inject a little zest, 77-year-old Michael Heseltine could plug that gap. I'd even try to sequester Gerry Burks, Britain's Oldest New Dad at 75, to macho things up by reminding us that the senescent pencil can have lead in it too.

"A geriatric party for a geriatric country"... Isn't that a campaign slogan we could all get behind? Being the Methuselah of current leaders himself, Gordon Brown needs this help least (luckily, since most of Labour's pre-Blair stalwarts have departed the planet, but Roy Hattersley could spare a few weeks from writing about dogs. Nick Clegg obviously needs the help most (for heaven's sake, man, at least shave off the hair at the temples). He has a Gang of Two in Shirley Williams and David Owen, and should deploy them to the max.

In a back-to-the-future campaign, when the past being returned to is one of insolvency, spending cuts and stirrings of industrial unrest, any well-liked reminder of the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s must be an asset. Every time the face of Osborne, Michael Gove, Andy Burnham or one of those Lib Dem clones who look a bit like Simon Pegg appears on telly, you can hear the cry of "get this silly little twerp off my screen". On the rare occasions it's Hezza, Hatto or Shirl, regardless of personal political affiliation, you can't help thinking "Thank God, a grown-up at last."

Mr Osborne's problem on Monday wasn't just looking like a boy, but like the kind of boy whose favourite conveyance is a superyacht and tipple of choice a flute of Cristal. Meanwhile, Messrs Darling and Cable came over as the sort of chaps whose raciest fantasy, on being driven home from a stump speech late at night by the missus in an ancient Hillman Imp, is flopping into bed with a hot milky drink. This spells trouble for the Tories, if not necessarily doom, in an Ovaltine election.

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