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Parliament's Election Angst

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By:Ralph Berry | October 31, 2019

“O’ the twelfth day of December” sang Sir Toby Belch. Boris Johnson, who much resembles the knight, completes the line: “Let’s have a general election.” He had his way on Tuesday, October 28, when Jeremy Corbyn announced Labour support for a general election on December 12, 2019. That opened the door for a simple majority, overturning the infamous Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and in the evening the thing was done. 

But not without many misgivings, especially in the Labour Party, which largely abstained on the vote. They had reason. MPs have a deep-rooted aversion to a general election. How will they perform, as individuals? If they lose, how could their lost salaries be reconstituted? They think of “their careful wives,” their bairns, the costs of sending their first-born to Grunt’s where he will receive a decent education and make useful contacts for life. These contacts will not be equaled in the State sector. If he is obliged by penury to send his son (or daughter) to the local comprehensive, the Head of English may turn out to favor English literature as revealed via its hypermodern triumphs. She might advance the works of Carol Ann Duffy, who on her appointment as Poet Laureate in 2009 announced that she intended to compose an “Ode to Civil Partnerships.” The public (i.e., in U.S terms, private) schools can at least be relied on to give Dryden and Keats a guest appearance. We have come a long way from the first Poet Laureate, Ben Jonson, especially if we take into account his sexual tastes as revealed to Drummond of Hawthornden. Jonson was an old-fashioned hetero who “thought the use of a maid nothing in comparison to the wantonness of a wife.” No, it seems best to avoid these dangers to family values, and put off the threat of a general election. But every day the dawn chorus of press editorials and letters has grown in volume. The people wanted an election, whatever the inclinations of their representatives. The end came when Corbyn declared that the EU had ruled out No Deal, and Labour could support Brexit. The party leaders willed the end and imperiously ordained the means.     

Even so, the doubts were not stilled. Fifty-one MPs had switched parties since the 2017 election, and are presumed dead. Boris had already fired 21 MPs from the party, an act resembling the Roman practice of decimation. Ten have now been re-admitted, including Sir Nicholas Soames, a pillar of the Conservative Enlightenment, but the party contains many Remainers who loathe Brexit. That goes for Labour as well. MPs are simple folk at heart, who just like their jobs and dislike imperilling their sinecures.  Of the many reasons to hand, they name December as a poor month for campaigning. Darkness at tea-time, miserable weather are cited. Already I hear the word “snow” mentioned by the TV augurs as warning of adverse conditions to come.

Snow! We can read about it in Lorna Doone, with its marvelous description of the Great Winter of 1683-4 when it snowed without a break for three days and nights. We have come out of the little ice age since then. There hasn’t been a white Christmas in this country for years, save in the outer parts of Scotland.  People are happy to hear Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas, but they don’t expect to see one. Every year sentimentalists place small bets on Christmas snow, and the bookmakers clean up. That’s it. Climate change, warmer summers now mean that a very decent champagne-type wine is made in the South-East, especially on the chalk vein of Sussex. (If reports are true, it is at least as good as New York champagne.) And the fearsome threat of snow and ice is supposed to put the electorate off their right to vote, an electorate that is smart enough to have heard of postal voting. All the same, the Westminster class, solicitous for the wellbeing of the public, had decided that the Christmas festivities should not be marred by politics. The Elizabethans ordained twelve days for Christmas; today’s rulers and their public want more. It is a holiday—“holy day”—and the election could wait.  So the Westminster
combatants would go into winter quarters, with the troops home for Christmas. Hostilities could re-commence after Twelfth Night.

These agreeable vistas are now shattered. And a strange malign presence now casts its shadow over the scene. It has determined Boris’s choice of election date. It consists of students.

“I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” That is the Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale (3.3.58-61). Youth now goes to university in massive numbers, and Conservative strategists had hoped for an early October election, in the Michaelmas term. In Freshers week first-year students essay the nursery slopes of sex, drugs, and human relationships. After that come the first lectures. Politics then makes an entrance, leaning heavily to the Left as in all institutions of higher education. This matters, because students congregate in university towns, and if they choose to vote there can swing a close election. As a class they are energized and organized by the methods of today. Canterbury, which has two universities, returned the Labour candidate in 2017 and dispossessed the long-standing Conservative MP. Their elders do not need to organize; they just are, and know their own minds. 

Youth is expected to vote Labour, and will receive an enormous bribe to do so: Corbyn will promise to cancel all student loans debts. The ancientry will vote for the Brexit interest, partly because they are old enough to remember when the Franco-German bloc ran the Continent and do not care to repeat any form of that experience. It would be a gross simplification to regard the coming election as a contest between youth and the ancientry, but that’s the way it’s shaping up.

[Image by Pete Linforth via Pixabay.]

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