Welcome to the Banana Republic

Peter Stead vents his frustration at the horsetrading in Whitehall

We have all experienced five days of frustration since that remarkable Thursday evening exit poll. In my case that frustration has been accompanied by mounting anger. A week or so ago, as the Election became increasingly difficult to call, Times columnist Hugo Rifkind pointed out that it was a field-day for bloggers and dinner party pundits as anything one said and argued seemed to make sense. Similarly, since Friday morning, politicians, and especially those belonging to the defeated Labour Party, have attempted to offer sonorous procedural and ideological judgements as they shamelessly invent both policies and constitutional principles more or less on the hoof.

The one consolation is that the political harlotry of the last few days has illustrated once and for all that proportional representation would be a disaster at the United Kingdom level. It was a device necessary in the nascent political nations of Scotland and Wales where four-party squabbling needed to be coaxed towards consensus. The United Kingdom is a vastly more complex entity in which major financial, international and ideological decisions have to be made. Obviously those decisions need to be taken by brave ministers in conference with experts and not with opportunist politicos playing games in after-shave filled rooms.

Over the last few days, and not least on Squalid Monday, I became increasingly ashamed of my country. During the last week of the Election I considered what was happening in Greece and off the coast of Louisiana, I noted the soldiers returning from the battlefields (and in particular their limbless colleagues) and I continued my reading of Christopher Harvie’s mad but brilliant attack on Brown’s abandonment of economic morality and John Lanchester’s magnificent exposure of how our politicians connived in the collapse of British capitalism. Increasingly, I concluded, we are living in dangerous times. It was in this frame of mind that I looked at television pictures of small groups of men scurrying around London streets and, quite unbelievably, of a demonstration of anoraks demanding PR.

The beauty of our present system is that the bold educate us into a new consensus. The Tories of the 1930s, educated into social reform and the subsequent post-war Welfare State, illustrated that the Liberal Party’s greatest triumph came at a time when they had ceased to be a major parliamentary force. Today we live in a country shaped by Thatcher and Blair. As things stand we are all too aware of their unfortunate legacies but we must face the fact that we have been assiduously avoiding a confrontation with the questions they both asked. Politics must always be about debate and argument, not horse-trading.

I write towards the end of the fifth day of negotiations and the settlement may come soon. However, I must sum up my own thinking. Gordon Brown should have resigned on Friday and the Queen (remember her) should have asked Cameron to form a minority government. At that stage there should have been negotiations. There would have been a strong case for considering a National Government. The Lib Dems did not win this Election and it is crazy that they are now bouncing us into revolutionary constitutional changes. Labour leaders have been fighting to keep their jobs. If a coalition of the losers is formed the game show of the Leaders Debates will give way to the new show of the Labour Leadership race. The phrase ‘fiddling whilst Rome burns’ comes to mind. The opportunism of the Nationalist Parties beggars belief. Just as it would be best for Labour to sort it itself out in opposition, so the nationalists should realise that the fact of an English Tory-led Government would give them a far better opportunity that a ragbag coalition.

On top of this there were the scenes of voters excluded from the booths. Of course, we need to sort out our increasingly third-world conduct of elections in what ought to be similarly-sized constituencies. At least the BBC did us proud. The set and graphics in what was presumably Dubai Airport were over-the-top but the sheer professionalism of Dimbleby, Edwards and Robinson was utterly reassuring. Paxman was a disgrace. Schama’s head didn’t fall off (it will one day) and unfortunately Andrew Neill’s boat didn’t sink. But as things stand, our broadcasters are a class above our politicians. We have learnt that we do television better that anything else. We will all be watching it when the lights go out.

Peter Stead is an historian, cultural commentator and Agenda columnist.

Also within Politics and Policy