Are general elections all the same?

A new history of general elections gave me a strange sense of déjà vu.

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In the early 1700s “prime minister” was a term of abuse. Hard to imagine, I know! But the title implied that a person had – cravenly – risen too high above the others, and sucked up to the monarch; was, in effect, a teacher’s pet. Also – Number 10 was once Number 5. And polls were open for months on end to ensure those voters toiling over dales might make it on foot. Corruption was fantastically bold. A whole village in Wiltshire turned out for years to have a busy electorate – of sheep. And “Potwallopers” were those permitted to vote because they owned a hearth big enough to fry on and…

So went this election history education-athon, BBC Radio 4’s podcast You’re Dead To Me: The History of General Elections – shaped oh-so comfortingly to make you feel that much had changed, but also not. A rattle through historical facts and scandals, with nice exchanges such as, “So, were the Whigs Left then?” “Ish.” “Australian liberal – or liberal-liberal?” Historian Dr Hannah Nicholson spoke eloquently of the MP who sprinkled 500 guineas into the crowd by way of “treating” the voters, and pointed out that hecklers frequently chucked dead cats and dogs at speakers. Comedian Catherine Bohart made a game foil, ever-gasping “No way that happened!” and “Wowwwot?” and “Number FIVE Downing Street? Sounds like a primary school!”

Only, the more she did it, the more it became clear that nothing really sounded surprising. In fact, it began to feel quite possible that the whole programme had been made specifically to confirm that we are, all of us, indeed stuck in a loop. We all wake up, aged eight or 80, to hear the same righteous indignation coming from all parties. We still hear the same fascistic attempts to control the discourse via virtue signalling; and people are still talking about leftish spending plans and how we’re all heading for the poorhouse.

Perhaps the only truly unusual thing about the 2019 circus is that weird little ghost of a smile the current PM gives when he’s most under attack, that somehow softens the moment, so the audience never quite senses blood. But generally, in short, and for some time yet – perhaps forever – we shall go to bed dreaming of dead cats and dogs. 

You’re Dead To Me
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want

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