In the run-up to the general election, I’ve completely ignored the present and looked back at four past votes via the medium of the BBC TV coverage:
Partly, of course, enjoying the way Richard Dimbleby says ‘pizza’ is displacement activity, an attempt to avoid thinking about what is currently occurring. There have been many campaigns in the past as craven as Mrs Theresa May’s, but few, in my view, quite as personally inept, at least few involving a likely prime minister (Labour in 1983 and the Conservatives in 2001 were never likely to form a government anyway). Has any individual been quite as exposed by the hustings even as she has shied away from them?
The Labour campaign meanwhile feels like that of an England football team with a manager so unsuitable that all the leading players have withdrawn from the squad, leaving him to pick from those available in the lower divisions. The spirit with which they play might warm fans’ hearts, but there is a reason why some footballers are in the Premier League and others in League One. (I’ll avoid any further argument about the futility of a team solely consisting of left-wingers, for that would to be to chase the metaphor until it dies of exhaustion like a donkey involved in a traditional rite in a Spanish village on fiesta day, in the mountains, on the hottest day of the summer.)
Both the Liberals and the UKIPs are discovering what happens when you remove a plausible leader without anyone to take their place. As for the Greens, attempts to put the spotlight on anyone other than Caroline Lucas show that they really only have one serious politician – which raises the question of why, if she is a serious politician, she is not in a serious party.
But then a slight personal distaste for the 2017 campaign is not the only reason to spent this election mainly concerned with others long past. In fact, it is the distance to those votes, and the TV broadcasts around them, that remind us that maybe things are not quite as bad as the last few paragraphs have made them seem.
The 1964 election may seem like a good-natured contest in a country at ease with itself. But it occurred very much under the shadow of atomic holocaust (this was, after all, only a couple of years on from the Cuban Missile Crisis). In the light of Khrushchev’s removal in the Soviet Union, Robin Day bluntly asks: ‘Do you think there is a large-scale nuclear alert in the defences of the West?’ And that is before China explodes her first atomic bomb the next morning – the fear of a rapprochement between the two major Communist powers is a clear concern throughout all the election-night discussions of the change at the top in the USSR. And that’s without mentioning what everyone agrees to be a looming economic crisis.
Ten years on there is a more explicit sense of doom. Indeed that was why the February 1974 election was called. And if the industrial showdown and oil crisis of the time were not bad enough, the elections were even more under the shadow of terrorism than in 2017. The Guildford pub bombings occurred during the October campaign, while there was what the BBC described as a ‘bombing blitz’ in Belfast on election night.
But all those crises were eventually solved, though a lot more blood was yet to be shed in Northern Ireland. And I hope it isn’t glib to say that looking back at the election programmes of the time is to remember that a contest that seems at the time to be a conflict between good and evil, with the future of humanity at stake, will fade. The one-liners of Ken Dodd, the intra-studio bickering, the silly constituency slogans and someone shouting ‘Tory telecom reforms’ as if it makes sense – these things transform often fraught events into something more soothingly ethereal.
Okay, the election matters. But looking at those past BBC broadcasts reminds us (well me, anyway) that we never necessarily had it so good, and – with the perspective of a bit of time – we never have it that bad.