There Is No Practical Reason Not to Hold an Election Now. Even So, It Should Be Postponed

By Parris, Matthew | The Spectator, March 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

There Is No Practical Reason Not to Hold an Election Now. Even So, It Should Be Postponed


Parris, Matthew, The Spectator


It is a question not of feasibility but of respect. The reason Tony Blair should even now reconsider his determination to call a general election a year early has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it would be practical to hold one now.

Of course it would: perfectly practical. Even in the most rural parts of England like my own, the Peak District of Derbyshire, most addresses remain canvassable. Almost everyone lives in towns or villages, and these are not closed. Relative to the whole population, only a handful of people live on farms, and they would hardly notice the minor restriction to their democratic rights involved in not receiving a string of hopeful parliamentary candidates at their door. Nor, anyway, is it true that most candidates have time to canvass most farms at election time.

As for voting, relatively few farmers have barricaded themselves in, or are likely to. There will be some who think it communityminded not to make unnecessary journeys off their land, but such people can easily vote by post.

The argument that teams of activists, ministers and party spokesmen, flying around in helicopters and touring the kingdom in election 'battlebuses' with their accompanying media troupes, could add more than a fraction of a fraction of a per cent to the total number of journeys made by the population as a whole is simply fatuous. At any given moment in modern Britain, millions of people and hundreds of millions of tons of goods are hurtling around the country in millions of cars, lorries, trains, buses and planes. I see no likelihood that, however bad this epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease becomes, the government would order a general curfew over the next few weeks.

The argument that in a crisis ministers ought to be at their desks in Whitehall, concentrating on the job of handling it, has more weight, but not as much as at first appears. It is civil servants, not politicians, who do most of the planning; who formulate recommendations to ministers, and arrange for implementation. The task of ministers is mostly to say yea or nay, and those who need the time to study problems hardest can easily be excused normal election duties. Everybody would understand why Nick Brown was not on the doorstep much; and the Prime Minister has already decided that in this campaign he wants to be back in London every night.

As for Parliament as a body, in a real crisis backbench MPs can only gawp. From the point of view of the usefulness of the legislature, a war, epidemic or national emergency is rather a good time to hold an election, for there's nothing for our tribunes to do at Westminster.

There is, in short, no good reason why a general election cannot be held in circumstances of a few limited restrictions placed on the movement of a limited number of people and vehicles; nor any overwhelming argument why in troubled times the business of competent public administration cannot be carried on without the presence in London of most politicians for most of the time.

So why am I sure that Tony Blair will be making a serious mistake if, as expected, he calls the election now?

The reason is simple, and, if you suggest it in any pub, kitchen or village hall outside the major conurbations of England and Wales, you will meet warm and immediate support. It is that to hold an election now is insulting. …

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