Matthew Norman: We had our chance, and we blew it

We have been every bit as smug and apathetic as the politicians
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The Independent Online

Take a bow, every one of us who went to the polls on Thursday, at the majesty of what we have done.

If the Creator of Mankind, at the dawn of time itself, had handed Satan and his fiendish minions infinite time and computing power to simulate the most exquisitely calibrated constitutional cataclysm imaginable, they'd never have come within light years of this. By some miracle of mass osmosis, some 30 million people coalesced on Thursday to produce deadlock on enough levels to make a pan-dimensional chessboard look like a game of snakes and ladders. Or more accurately in this case, with all the protagonists slithering down in unison, a game of snakes and snakes.

Words are beggared of their power to communicate the perfect anarchic beauty of what we can scarcely call the "result" without collapsing into sleep-deprived giggles. It is unspeakably hilarious, indescribably baffling, unconscionably fiascoid and a little terrifying. Even those of us long hooked on glibly dismissing this nation as a shining beacon of constitutional duncery to the world had no idea it would quite come to this.

What this is, of course, no one yet knows. What it isn't seems easier to identify, which is fitting after an election that concluded (in so far it has concluded; excuse the endless qualifications, but this is no moment to affect clarity of thought) with only negatives for all concerned: it isn't anything at all. It is a condition of stasis in which no one has the right – moral, political or psephological – to govern. It is an immutably British form of nihilism.

However this vacuum becomes filled in the short term, it is a statement of the obvious that in the longer term only a written constitution will do. With those pictures of sub-third world polling station incompetence beaming across the globe, with the planet gazing upon our paralysis as the Greek contagion spreads in our direction, the humiliation can be tolerated no longer. Surely, surely, that frowsty, century-old debate about a constitutional reformation, embracing electoral reform and so much more, becomes the defining political issue of the age.

Had it become so last summer, we would not be wherever it is we are now. In the aftermath of MPs' expenses, when the appetite for reform felt rapacious, the opportunity for a serious political leader to impose himself decisively was golden. Instead they saw it as fool's gold, and were rendered fools themselves.

Gordon Brown grinned like Hannibal Lecter on YouTube while the blazing fire, already long set, had a canister of liquid paraffin placed beneath it, and blethered emptily. David Cameron, the prisoner of a rumbling Conservative right already looking rather less dormant than he'd have us believe, didn't even blether about the meaningless "inquiry" into electoral form that is as far as his deathbed conversion can take him now.

Had either man seized the opening and embraced the idea of a post-election referendum on a written constitution and its contents, he would today have more than the right to say, "I told you so". He'd have moral authority on a scale equivalent to a mandate.

Neither did, and that failure should be the epitaph on the political careers of both. Foresight is a quality we seek, however vainly, in those who would lead us. These two not only never saw this coming. For similar reasons of purest political self-interest, they shut their eyes. That is an avalanche of disgrace under which they should be buried in a twin grave, its headstone inscribed with "We didn't give a toss!"

Nick Clegg too may be mortally wounded. Likeable as he is, and without disputing the correct positioning of his heart, he wasn't ready for this moment. Exposed as a lightweight in that third debate, he has been castrated at the ballot box, and speaks in a voice too high-pitched for even our dogs to hear.

And yet for all that, once again I find myself falling back on a speech from V for Vendetta, the underrated film in which a superhero in a Guy Fawkes mask finishes what his role model began, and blows up Parliament. I quote them now because they form the best judgement on how we came to this unpretty pass. "The truth is that there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there," V addresses Britain after hijacking the state broadcaster. "How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well, certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable. But, again, truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror."

We have watched this constitutional pile-up coming in super slo-mo and done nothing but whinge. We didn't form a viable new party; we haven't (dear old Esther and a few other publicity-hungry halfwits excepted) stood for Parliament; we haven't even expressed our disgust to opinion pollsters. All we have done is get our knickers in a twist about the trivial symptoms – the tampons, the duck house, that bleeding moat – while ignoring the malignant mass in the body politic that has caused the paralysis of today. We have been every bit as smug and apathetic as the politicians.

Yet perhaps this portrait of a comatose political class engaging in this Dario Fo-choreographed danse macabre with a somnambulist electorate is that fraction too bleak. While the Tories and Labour, and perhaps the Lib Dems, struggle to avoid the civil wars that are their just deserts, there is one leader and one alone in absolute control of their party, and so with as close to a mandate to govern Britain as the madness permits. Would anyone outside Westminster have the strength left to object if that delightful Caroline Lucas of the Greens became our new Prime Minister?

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