Of the many things that Nigel Farage is wrong about, his suggestion that this year’s general election will be a uniquely ugly and dirty affair is an especially silly one.
Mr Farage may well be a patriotic man, but he seems to lack a sense of British political history. Even without his assistance, our politics has rarely been a model of Socratic dialogue.
As is often the case, Mr Farage has caused a stir with his column for this newspaper. Writing earlier this week he observed that Labour and the Conservatives have hired attack dogs from abroad, most notably the Australian expert Lynton Crosby, who has been giving the Prime Minister the benefit of his advice. As a result, Britain’s traditional “playful newspaper headlines” and “upbeat” party political broadcasts are to be replaced by politicians tearing chunks out of one another.
In fact, rough politics is nothing new. The Churchill commemorations should serve to remind us of the many low-grade insults this statesman was capable of throwing. In 1945, he said that the Labour Party would need “some sort of Gestapo” to implement its programme, having previously claimed Labour was “unfit to govern”. As for what is now called media strategy, Churchill had this to say: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” Elections have always been mendacious, negative, vicious affairs, and this year will be no different.
Thus far it has clearly been “health vs wealth”, with Labour staking out traditional territory on the NHS, and the Tories doing much the same on the economy. In due course, immigration may become more of an issue, but apart from a distasteful flurry in the 2005 contest, it has hardly figured in British general election campaigns, perhaps surprisingly. Mr Farage and Ukip may alter that this time round, but the issue will probably still lag behind other concerns. Europe, too, can be safely left to any forthcoming referendum; with the possibility of joining the euro out of the question, Britain’s relationship with the EU will be a side issue. In Scotland, there will be the genuine innovation of the national question dominating discussion.
In the weeks leading up to 7 May we may have television debates between the party leaders, but the format seems likely to be less satisfactory than in 2010, which did spark public interest and that brief outbreak of “Cleggmania”. In issue terms, this year’s election seems set to mirror most closely that of 1992, between John Major’s government and Neil Kinnock’s opposition, when the economy and health also dominated and a hung parliament seemed on the cards. That was not an uplifting experience.
If the polls are to be believed, the British electorate is likely to deliver an uncertain verdict. If so, then a second general election may not be far behind, though not necessarily also this year. That election might well prove to be more interesting and not a mere re-run, in the sense that it might resolve itself into being a referendum on the electoral system. First-past-the-post, we will soon learn, is no longer capable of delivering its principal asset – strong one-party government with a decisive majority. What we do after that really will be entertaining.