Naked elections please, they’re British

Passing bite |


Sometimes watching elections in other countries is like being at some sports match when your side is not involved. At other times you care about the results as desperately as you would back in India. These recent U.K. snap elections shape-shifted from beginning to end. At first, staying with the sports analogy, it was as if a walkover was declared — the incompetent in-Corbynites were a shambles about to be boiled in further shambolifying oil by Turgid Theresa of The Terrible Tories; the Labour Party was dead and Britain was about to become a one-party state. Then May stumbled and kept stumbling, while Corbyn, with a charming, easy, ‘nothing to lose but our chains’ attitude began to make inroads. When May was asked about the naughtiest thing she had ever done, she Enid Blytonified herself and smarmed cutely that she had once run through a field of wheat and the farmer had not been pleased. When Corbyn was asked the same question, he winked and said it was too naughty to talk about, throwing up visions of perhaps a quite different, D.H. Lawrencian, use of a field of wheat.

Battle of contrasts

When May refused to join the all-party debate on TV, Corbyn replied that he wouldn’t participate either if May wasn’t coming, but then (naughty boy) he wrong-footed everyone by finding time at the last minute to appear with the other party leaders, making May look cowardly and arrogant. The debate was a turning point when all the Opposition leaders ganged up on the hapless Amber Rudd who was standing in for May, accusing the Prime Minister of being a) too scared, and b) too lordly to come to a debate with them.

When things go wrong in a game, they can cascade, a shot that would normally go for four or six gets skied into a dolly catch, you miss a goal from two yards while breaking your leg, and so on. Thus, the two horrible terror attacks in Manchester and London, which should normally have shored up May as the strongest-on-security candidate, instead opened the can of worms on police cuts that she had made as Home Minister. And, finally, the nation’s youngsters actually woke up and got out of bed on voting day. In any case, the Tories won but lost, and Labour lost but won. The outcome was almost, nay completely, perfect for Jezza Corbyn: he had gained hugely while avoiding taking over the country at the time of great chaos; the Tories were badly damaged but still in charge of the mess they had created; their goose could now be cooked slowly and properly with the edibility potentially lasting over a longer period.

What was most fun for an Indian used to seeing politicians either getting too much respect or exchanging the crudest barbs during elections was the mixture of civility, frankness and wit on display. On the one hand George Osborne could say something like ‘Theresa May is now a dead woman walking’ (as in let’s see how long she stays on death row before execution, presumably by her fellow party members) — while Corbyn, in his first speech in the new Parliament, could say that he looked forward to working with the Prime Minister for however many days or weeks her government lasted.

The acerbically analytical columns from writers across the entire political spectrum were to be envied, as too were cartoons in the papers. One by Steve Bell, the level of visual slapping unimaginable in India, shows a naked Theresa May trailing a red cape striding off a cliff in her leopard-patterned high heels, the cape held by her Brexit negotiating team, Boris Johnson, David Davis, etc., also all naked. The justification for the cartoon is provided by May’s own comment which is quoted in her speech bubble: ‘Jeremy Corbyn will find himself alone and naked in the negotiating chamber of the European Union.’ If you want naked, Bell seems to be saying, I’ll give you naked.

British elections are naked in a different way from ours. Where we have convoys of paramilitary moving across the landscape during the different phases, here you don’t even see a policeman at a voting booth.

As compared to our mile-long queues, here there are barely a dozen people lining up at any given time. Forget the EVMs and all the doubtable digital paraphernalia, here there is a secluded counter, a pencil tied to a string and a paper ballot that gets slid into a box containing the votes that will later be counted by hand.

Watching the results coming in, I had a memory of all this being pretty much the same about 25 years ago, when, as a Commonwealth citizen living in London, I had rightfully registered to vote for my obscure, marginal Labour candidate. I had gone into the booth, voted and come out, all within about seven minutes, all vaguely dissatisfying for an Indian. The man I’d voted for won but in a Parliament dominated by John Major’s Tories. It was interesting to see the same man today, standing jubilantly as the leader of a buoyant Opposition and telling the Prime Minister he was ready to form a government the moment her chaotic coalition collapses.