In March 1907, Sir Francis Galton, now best and unfondly remembered for his enthusiastic promotion of eugenics (he coined the word) and his remarks on such topics as “The deterioration of the British race,” published a fascinating article in Nature titled “Vox Populi.” “In these democratic days,” he wrote, “any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgements is of interest.” His particular investigation was based on a visit he’d made to an agricultural show in Plymouth the previous summer, where people were invited to guess the slaughtered and “dressed” weight of a live ox, at a ticket price of sixpence apiece (a sufficient stake then to deter frivolous entries). There were eight hundred contestants, most of whom were “as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes.”
When the competition was over, Galton got access to the tickets, discounted thirteen of them as illegible, and, on the basis of the remaining 787 votes, found that the “middlemost estimate” (ticket number 394 between the highest and lowest guesses) was 1,207 pounds, 0.8 percent higher than the true weight of the dressed ox, which was 1,198 pounds, while the mean average of votes came to 1,197 pounds, just one pound short of a perfect match. Galton wrote: “The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.”
Any “national mood” is as hard to precisely gauge as the weight of an ox, but when the surprising results of the May 6 British general election were announced, they seemed like a replay of Galton’s famous experiment. Though few individual Labour, Conservative, or Liberal Democrat voters, let alone those who supported such outlier parties as the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—which opposes membership in the EU—or the thuggish, far-right British National Party (BNP), can have been much pleased by the outcome, the vox populi came up with a set of figures that were uncannily accurate in their representation of the deeply ambivalent mood of the electorate, which pollsters and commentators had tried, and mostly failed, to catch in the weeks leading up to the election.
Gordon Brown deserved to go, but David Cameron didn’t deserve to win, and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats were not entitled to any great boost in parliamentary seats just because Clegg had delivered a strong performance in the first of the three televised prime ministerial debates. (The Lib Dems, however, had a much higher proportion of the vote than was reflected in the distribution of parliamentary seats.) There was no rush to extremes: the BNP was treated with proper scorn, and the merry jingoism of the UKIP failed to catch on. The Greens found sufficient public favor to gain their first-ever MP, Caroline Lucas in Brighton. One way and another, all the major parties lost, but it was the subtle proportionality of their losses that was the true weight of this large and temperamental ox.
I arrived in England less than forty-eight hours before polling day, and it was the near-complete absence of signs of the election that first impressed me. Driving slowly north from Heathrow, jet-lagged and jittery after an overnight flight from the West Coast, I stuck to minor roads, hoping to catch the electoral mood in towns and villages along my route. The last general election to be held when I still lived in London was that of 1987, and back then no visitor could have missed the blizzard of posters and placards, taped to windows and tacked to slender deal posts by front gates. There always used to be a belligerent pride in announcing one’s political affiliation to the passing world, and “Vote Labour” signs had graced my own windows in every election since 1964. In 2010, people were keeping their party loyalties to themselves: at stoplights and junctions, I scanned every house in sight—nothing.
I’d been driving for an hour when I spotted a cluster of “Sod The Lot” UKIP placards in Aylesbury, with the £ sign as the dubious emblem of British national sovereignty (if sovereignty resides in the pound sterling, then sovereignty is shrinking fast). But they were free-standing, on public space beside the road, unattached to anyone’s private house or garden. Deep in rural Buckinghamshire, I saw the first of several blue Tory billboards, erected on the edge of a field of oilseed rape, whose recent cultivation, encouraged by generous EU subsidies, has painted great swatches of English landscape a discordant shade of Van Gogh cadmium yellow.
Again, the billboards were far from any residence, as if it were the land itself, and not its (probably corporate) owner, that was saying “Time For Change: Vote Conservative.” In the village pub in Northamptonshire where I stayed the night, I was excited to see a debate going on around a crowded table. People were taking sides, making points, arguing with some vigor. I took my glass of wine to a nearby table to listen in, but found they were discussing the Badminton Horse Trials, not the election. But this was in the Daventry constituency, safe Conservative territory, farming and hunting country, where I suspected that Labourites might still be called “bolshies,” and that the Lib Dems would muster little better than a token showing. At breakfast the next morning I asked the landlady if there’d been much election talk in the bar. “Politics in the pub?” she said. “No. That’s bad business.”
All through Leicestershire and Derbyshire, mile after politics-free mile went past. The last petals of white hawthorn blossom were disappearing from the hedges; the pubs were advertising their giant plasma-screen TVs, on which to watch the upcoming great national contest between Chelsea and Portsmouth in the FA Cup final; and I was mulling over the remark made by Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, at a private lunch with an American economist, who reported it on an Australian TV talk show. “He told me,” the economist said, “whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be.”
On its western side, the city of Sheffield sharply abuts the Peak District National Park. Wild-looking open moorland suddenly gives way to wealthy Victorian suburbia: solid bourgeois houses built with irregularly sized bricks of the local honey-buff limestone; high-walled gardens; avenues of long-established lime trees, chestnuts, and beeches; an air of standing aloof and well to windward (the prevailing winds are from the southwest) of the stink and pollution of the old steel factories and dismal working-class housing that led George Orwell to call Sheffield “the ugliest town in the Old World.” But even in 1937, he wasn’t thinking of Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s constituency, which was where, at last, I saw the election break out in earnest, with dueling signs, Liberal Democrat, Labour, and Conservative, at the gates of half the houses that I passed.
Sheffield Hallam was a safe Tory seat until 1997, when Richard Allan, a thirty-one-year-old archaeologist, computer manager, and Sheffield native, seized it for the Lib Dems on a mighty 18 percent swing. This was the year of the New Labour landslide, and Allan’s personal triumph in Sheffield Hallam was in keeping with the larger triumph of Tony Blair’s (and Brown’s, and Peter Mandelson’s) refashioned Labour Party, in that it severed the last cord between being prosperously upper-middle class and voting Conservative. Leafy, limestone, nanny-employing Hallam, when it went Lib Dem, was a symbol of the end of traditional class-based politics (when I was growing up in the England of the late 1950s and early 1960s almost every pub had a Private bar for the Tory gentry, a Saloon bar for the in-betweens, and a Public bar for the laboring, and therefore Labour, classes.) In 1997, the Lib Dems more than doubled their number of parliamentary seats, from twenty to forty-six, winning twenty-eight seats from the Conservatives (they lost two to Labour) in seaside towns, London’s well-heeled commuter belt, cathedral cities, and former Tory shires.
These Lib Dem gains reflected the rise of a younger, modern, middle class of people who traveled widely, valued their membership in the European Union, balanced their fear of statism against their university-bred ideas of social justice and fairness, and were keenly protective of their own personal liberties and civil rights. Sheffield Hallam might have been their capital—the young families in renovated old houses, new Audis, Priuses, and Smart cars on gravel driveways, the restaurants, boutiques, and health food shops along Ecclesall Road. Lozenge-shaped Lib Dem placards proclaimed “Winning Here,” and so they were, but the annoying smugness of that phrase seemed part of the character of the place. Sheffield Hallam knows, rather too well, that it’s where the winners in South Yorkshire live.
I was staying at the house of my brother and his partner, a few hundred yards past the Sheffield Hallam border, in Sheffield Central, a Labour seat where the Liberal Democrats were in close contention. When I woke on Election Day, party volunteers wearing red (Labour) and yellow (Lib Dem) rosettes (I saw no Tory ones) were busy leafletting the neighborhood, and the polling station across the street, in a Salvation Army citadel, was doing brisk business. William Hill, the bookmakers, had stopped taking bets that national turnout would exceed 70 percent (now, apparently, a foregone conclusion, like the assumption of pollsters and commentators that the Conservatives would emerge with a slim outright majority). When I checked in with the man and woman who were staffing the polling station at around 11 AM, they told me that more than 33 percent of voters on their local list were already accounted for. Because the parliamentary election had been timed to coincide with the local council elections, voters were spending a long time in the booths, penciling crosses on twin white and yellow ballot papers.
In the short drive from the social uplands of western Sheffield to Rotherham, Sheffield’s northeastern neighbor, incomes and house prices fall, while unemployment figures steeply climb, as one passes through the unlovely postindustrial landscape of derelict steel mills and gimcrack-looking new developments. The multinational steel producer Corus laid off more than seven hundred workers at its Rotherham plant last year, and the desolation radiated by the shuttered businesses in the town center was only further emphasized by the steepling magnificence of the fifteenth-century Gothic Perpendicular minster that loomed over them. Rotherham was deep-rooted Labour, but the BNP, feeding on the miseries of recession by scapegoating “immigrants” as the villains of its crude political scenario, had been intensively campaigning here, trying to distill votes out of hard times.
Denis MacShane, who’d been minister for Europe under Tony Blair, had held the seat since 1994. I’d spoken to him a couple of times on his mobile during the day: he’d been up since 5 AM and was frantically doorstepping, not for himself (his majority was impregnable) but for Labour councillors in the city who were in danger of losing to either Conservatives or the BNP. His constituency house, in an unassuming cul-de-sac of identical three-bedroom semis, was easy to find since it was the only one on the street with election posters in its windows. An hour or so before the polls closed at 10 PM, MacShane was dog-tired but compulsively talkative, a spouting geyser of unreliable, heterodox opinions, as he is on Twitter and in the stream of articles he writes for the British and European press.