The shock was palpable, for those within the Westminster village. The lectern outside Number 10 Downing Street was laid without the usual Prime Ministerial seal, indicating a significant party political statement was imminent. The cautious, careful Theresa May walks out to announce a surprise general election on June 8. The Twittersphere goes into it's own orbit. Theresa May is now the risk-taker.
Elsewhere in the UK, Brenda from Bristol hears the news. "Not another one," she exasperates. Theresa May calls a general election; the media cheers, but the rest of the UK sinks like a lead balloon. Elections are meant to excite and enthuse. I've been active and engaged in the last few, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, but this one represents the bleak nothingness of contemporary British politics; we are not in the age of shock and awe, but of deep entrenched tragedy.
The first tragedy of this general election is the popularity of a party - the Conservatives - who have failed by all measures. Current polling (even when accounting for significant margins of error) show the Conservatives gaining a majority of over 100. And yet, in the last 7 years the party has overseen a rise in the cost of living, millions going to food banks and an increase in child poverty. They've hopelessly failed on reducing the deficit; they've divided the country and isolated the nation abroad - to name just a few. The election is just over a month away, and the Conservatives are soaring at over 40% in the polls. How can this be?
There is a deep pessimism in the UK. The country is preparing to vote for the party they think will damage it the least. They're voting for a party that has a seven year record of decline; in wage growth, homeownership and morale. But still, voters will vote for decline, and Theresa May's cynical ploy to increase her majority will lead us to twelve years of Tory rule and cuts - not to mention Brexit.
The Conservative Party is going headfirst for a deranged post-Brexit settlement; higher-tariffs, constrained migration and niche trade deals. Meanwhile, at home, grammar schools look set for a come-back. Let's divide the country, then divide children.
In the post-war period, the British people voted in governments that worked within the scope of civic socialism. The construction of the welfare state improved society. There was collective ambition to make ourselves, and each others, lives better. The 80s then saw new, individualistic ambitions emerge. People were enthused, wrongly, in Thatcher's politics. But they were enthused nonetheless; they had the prospect of material gain - home ownership, business and booming stock markets. Theresa May's post-Brexit Britain is neither; there are no collective or individual dreams. Theresa May's political offering is retrogradation; the main policy is the Conservative's 'long term economic plan', but no one really knows how long that is.
The second, even more insufferable tragedy of UK politics, is the electoral system. We could have more nuanced voting methods, that produce electoral outcomes that reflect and represent the British people, rather than binary referendums. It's no myth the countries in northern Europe with proportional voting systems have more effective and fair governments.
But Theresa May sits comfortably behind the out-dated first-past-the-post voting system. More than a century ago, it was one of the most progressive democratic mechanisms in the world. Not much has changed since then. It locks in political parties and throws away the key. Any viable progressive alliance between the parties of the left will struggle to win government.
The third, most ironic, tragedy of this election is the determinism of demographics. There are more old people than young people in the UK, and old people vote. Young people have different concerns, outlooks and anxieties. They see a world closing in on itself. They're saddled with debt and financial and job insecurity. Most won't own homes or be able to get a council flat. And soon, they'll find it hard to travel if they wanted to escape from this mess. But what can they do when the cards are stacked up against them?
Over the next month we'll find some laughter in the play of politics. Politicians have never been more fallible to the public eye. The tragedies will go on, though.
We'll be told that this election will be the most important one of a generation. And in many ways it is. The winning party will redefine Britain's relationship with Europe, and the world. But the outcome feels worryingly inevitable; a reluctant, and large Conservative victory wedded to a political model which is outdated, tired and unfit to do anything other than maundering decline.Suggest a correction