It was probably a mistake to spend so much time steeped in literature instead of history. It means I have no reference points for any General Election pre-1979, can’t describe the anarchy of hung parliaments. Instead, this pre-election fever reminds me of those Bloomsbury novels and diaries written in the late 1930s, especially Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, set in village England on a day in June during the ‘phoney war’ period of 1939.
The novel features a pageant of English history directed by the masculine Miss La Trobe and acted by the village locals in the grounds of Pointz Hall, a quintessentially English country house, the crown of the Oliver family estate.
I first read the novel in my twenties. Now older and wiser-and living in an English country house-I find that the ‘audience’ the family of the house-who watch the play are more caricatures of English country life than characters. Even Giles, the stockbroker son of the owner, is flatter than I remembered from the scene when, filled with rage for a Britain that is passively awaiting Hitler’s attack, he finds a snake choking on a toad. He takes out his frustration by stomping on it: ‘the snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die’.
If I weren’t so lazy, I could go places with that line. The banks as snakes, the bankers as toads; David Cameron as snake, Gordon Brown as toad; the voters as the snakes, MPs as toads. But the intellectual effort to develop the argument is too great. Besides, I’m worn out by the phoney war preceding this election, too alarmed by the slender lead of the Conservatives and poll figures that would spell the chaos of no one in charge. Instead of metaphorical speculation, I find it is easier to kick the floor and yell like Miss La Trobe, the pageant’s director.
‘Good grief,’ I howl at my husband over the newspaper each morning: ‘Why doesn’t Cameron sack Ashcroft?’ Over coffee, I ask: ‘Why aren’t the British fed up with this poker game in which election dates are decided by the hand of the party in power?’ And more. ‘Is it possible, with a recession and two wars, that an election will be won or lost over a non-dom?’
Although I long for Lord Ashcroft to announce with solemn dignity that he is ‘stepping down’ until his tax affairs are resolved, I actually feel kindly towards non-doms. For one thing, they do pay tax on income earned here and on any capital they bring into the country.
A neighbour with dual US-UK nationality explained to me in the farmer’s market that he is required to pay taxes in the USA no matter where he lives, on all his taxable income no matter where it’s earned. He lives in Suffolk and he’s allowed to deduct the taxes he pays in Britain from what he owes in America so he isn’t double-taxed. If that was the law in Britain-as it is in America-the non-dom drama would vanish overnight.
But the air of unreality that we breathe during the pre-Election phoney war lacks oxygen. We can’t yawn and stretch. Every night on the news, we listen as Mr and Mrs Everyman say that they don’t expect anything to change. Interviewers prompt them al-Qaeda, climate change, population growth, MPs’ expenses, immigration, economic catastrophe, the NHS-but they are steadfast: they don’t believe voting fixes anything.
More worrying than the non-voters, however, are are the floating voters, the most powerful citizens in the land. Everything that Labour, Tories and Lib-Dems say is now aimed at them. I remember when feelings about social and economic justice were the respiration of informed intelligence. It’s enough to make you head for the lambing shed with a case of Merlot and only emerge when you hear the toad is dead.
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