Up the avenue

Peter Clarke

  • Election Rides by Edward Pearce
    Faber, 198 pp, £5.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 571 16657 1

Don’t be put off by the title, since it’s only a laboured allusion to Cobbett’s Rural Rides, lacking the alliterative euphony of the original. What Edward Pearce of the Guardian offers is a record of his 19 days on the road during the General Election, visiting as many constituencies, each time in the company of a particular candidate, of varying party. There are glimpses of the circumstances of its composition at several points, including one gratuitous (I trust) advertisement for the delights of the Hark to Bounty Inn in Slaidburn, a fitting climax to the lyrical expedition across the Pennines from Richmond to Clitheroe. It’s nice to see that the author pulled in quite a lot of ‘countryside of the sort lucky not to have been stripped out and exported to Japan’. How different from his final slog from Birmingham to catch the count at Huntingdon, which evinces the comment that ‘a journey across west central and east central England by major road is best occupied reading proofs.’ So that’s how the book came into my hands within a week of polling day! If it’s more of a diary than a work of retrospective lucubration, it’s none the worse for that. This wasn’t the election for pundits to be wise after the event, given their failure to be wiser than the rest of us before it.

Hence the book’s claim: ‘It is, quite simply, what television coverage has not been: an account of the election!’ To be sure, this was sup posed to be the television election, the campaign in which the box celebrated its final triumph over the soap box. Television did not simply report the campaign: it created the campaign, as a series of media events contrived to produce a predetermined image. Even when John Major defiantly got out his own soap box, it was an artifact, a television prop, a designer soap box. It was a surrender to show business, a triumph of trivia, a debasement of debate. Never in the history of electoral conflict had so little been said by so many to so few. Disconsolate citizens looked in vain for the orators who once held vast crowds spellbound addressing the weighty issues of the day. ‘It isn’t like Gladstone, is it?’ one Lancashire voter confided. ‘Where has it all gone?’

One answer is the familiar historian’s retort that the snows of yesteryear were never quite what they are cracked up to be, and that there is, as Adam Smith would no doubt be saying if he had sat through the saga of Jennifer’s Ear, a deal of ruin in electioneering. The Grand Old Man was actually no slouch at the game of media manipulation. It was he, above all, who succeeded in using the new technology of his day to project his policy and his personality in the country. While other leaders rested on the reputation they had made in Parliament, Gladstone went out of doors to take politics to the people. He showed that the Liberal Party could thrive amid the vulgarity attendant on a mass franchise, which horrified many of his upper class cronies. It had no terrors for a leader manifestly able to preach a populist message.

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