It’s very rare for new ideas to surface at election time. This is the car-boot sale of the political process, where parties roll out things they’ve had kicking about the house for donkey’s years and, amazingly, there’s a guy in Beckenham who wants to buy them. High concepts, on the other hand, they’re everywhere. New ones, exciting ones, flashy ones, concepts so marvellous you can but dream of the meeting that spawned them, burst out like pretty fireworks.
High Concept Howard is Handwriting. For some time, this has been adorning our street corners, with slogans such as “How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?” written, bizarrely, in pink – as though black and blue were the colour of bureaucrats, and anyone with a heart conducted their penmanship at the lady end of the palette. Obtusely, I didn’t realise the underlying message, until I saw Howard with his six handwritten slogans, grinning like a toddler who’d just passed his first unaided stool into the correct receptacle. What we are dealing with here is wilful childishness, a faux-naIf “word processing is for growed-ups!” nose-thumb at the workings of the modern world.
Let’s have a look at this message of hope – more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline, controlled immigration and accountability. Leave aside “accountability” altogether. Accountability might be somewhat lacking in the incumbent government, but pledging it as an election promise is like saying, “Guess what! We’re going to let you vote!” There is nothing hopeful or optimistic about these other slogans. They are all about tidying up and getting told off. It’s like an episode of Supernanny, without the naughty room. Only a child could take from this “the sunshine of hope breaking through the clouds of disappointment”. That, finally, is the message we are to take from this campaign: let’s put a child in charge; children are so straightforward, so optimistic. They say the cutest things.
Charles Kennedy, meanwhile, represents the pinnacle of adulthood. His wife has just given birth. I like this guy a lot; I like his ideas, his manner and his ruddy complexion. I would not for a second suggest that he timed the conception of his firstborn to coincide with an election campaign. But still, come on – it’s a little bit fishy, isn’t it? At the very moment he’s wooing the country with what a decent human being he is, he does the very thing that decent human beings do when they’re in their prime – and the future unfurls before them, like a marvellous yellow brick road of opportunity and fun elves.
And finally, Blair and Brown, rather than trying to out-child the impish Howard, stake out the opposite end of human experience. These are the wise old men of the spectrum: they’ve had ups, they’ve had downs. They nearly packed it all in. They went to Relate and harsh words were exchanged, but, ultimately, they realised the rock-like strength of a lifelong partnership. The oldest have borne most, their Minghella-lit expressions tell us. We that are young shall never see so much nor live so long. It’s such a nice conceit that it strikes me they’ve only been pretending to hate each other all this time, the more moving to make their reconciliation. (But don’t listen to me – I’m not even above speculating about Charles Kennedy’s sex life.) Policies don’t mean an awful lot, they are trying to tell us, because, whatever they do, we can at least trust them to do it wisely. One of them will probably grow a beard quite soon. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to be in the Granita meeting where they decide which member of this marriage gets to have the beard.
So, here are the three ages of man: the child, the man, the village elder. The child brings with it enthusiasm, vim and a totally groundless optimism. The man brings strength, purpose and the perfect rightness of the natural order. And the village elder brings maturity and an al-most mystical insight into the ways of the world. At the moment, I feel rather fond of all of them. But I don’t know how the wisdom is going to play out, and I am yet to be fully convinced of the extent of Michael Howard’s potty training.