Listen to this article
If Britain’s political class had spent the past five weeks digging a hole in the ground and filling it up again, they would have more to show for their work than they do now. Let us not be coy about this: the general election campaign, which concludes on Thursday, has been a carnival of nonsense and futility.
At best, it has washed over the public, whose voting intention has not changed all year. The Budget, the manifestos, the sensational announcements, the unforced errors, those vaunted televised debates — none of these has achieved more than an ephemeral blip in the opinion polls.
At worst, the campaign has embarrassed this country with its studious avoidance of little things such as fiscal reality and the state of the world. We have seen politicians of the left propose price interventions and politicians of the right suggest banning tax increases by law. A country that has not balanced a budget since 2002 has developed the bravado of a country with a sovereign wealth fund, forever arguing with itself about how to use surplus revenue that does not exist. Suggest to influential people in the Labour and Conservative parties that they have spent the past few weeks knowingly peddling hogwash, and they do not try very hard to deny it.
The National Health Service, that tottering totem that outranks even the economy as voters’ principal concern, has not had a serious word said about it. The Tories promise to conjure an extra £8bn a year for its budget, but cannot say how. The distressing reality is that even this implausible sum is not enough to close the financial shortfall for long. As for the Labour party, it has lost what ability it once had to contemplate structural reform of the NHS without turning queasy and hysterical.
Healthcare has been discussed with good sense compared with housing, the most warped sector of the British economy, where constrained supply makes millionaires of entrenched owners and fools of everyone else.
At times, politicians seem to be engaged in an in-joke to see who can suggest the most ways of taming house prices without actually expanding supply. The law on planning and land use was the one structural rigidity that Margaret Thatcher never smashed open: instead of finishing her work, the parties are fiddling with stamp duty and assisting those who already have a deposit.
The campaign has dismayed in form as well as content. A political generation reared in the 1990s cannot see beyond the methods of that era. Labour still wheels out celebrity endorsers as if anyone is surprised that actors and musicians lean left. The Tories have not weaned themselves off the ruse of ex-cathedra letters signed by businessmen.
Each party has a “grid” of planned interventions. They vie to “win the day”. “Killer” dossiers are published debunking the other side’s fiscal arithmetic. There is always a “health week” or an “economy day”. They must know that this is all so much frenzy without effect. The routine is too familiar to too many.
The campaign has offered some small mercies. This parliament has been building up to a sulphurous argument about immigration in the final weeks, as mainstream parties try to emulate the UK Independence party’s vote-winning populism. In the event, it never happened. Immigration has been an eerily mute subject of late. And the televised events have not been entirely meretricious. Last week’s BBC Question Time special exposed the main party leaders to searching questions from members of the public who knew their stuff.
In the round, however, the past five weeks have been ignominious for British public life. And we do not even have the consolation of blaming politicians exclusively. Voters say they want plain speaking from their rulers. They do not mean it. If David Cameron confessed that another term as prime minister would bring cuts to middle-class welfare, he would not be thanked for his candour. Were Ed Miliband to elucidate the taxes that will go up under a Labour government, he would be done for.
The media is culpable, too. Parts of the press have torn down the wall between news and comment. When party leaders debated on television last month, no question about foreign affairs was put to them. A week earlier, Mr Miliband was pressed on his relationship with his brother and Mr Cameron was asked whether he could survive on a zero-hours contract. This is emotive and priggish; it aims to provoke a gaffe instead of soliciting an insight.
On the subject of gaffes, the closing image of the election is a giant stone monolith engraved with Labour’s priorities for government. It is not serious, but then neither was this campaign.
Letter in response to this column: