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Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Friday, 23 April 2010 16:01 UK

The thrill of the count

It's exciting - really


You might be suffering from election fatigue but British politics is big on drama - and always has been, says Simon Schama.

If there's anyone out there stifling an apathetic yawn when the word "election" comes up, my considered advice is - wake up. It matters. It has always mattered. And whatever your eventual pick, ignore the loudmouth in the pub. Those politicians really aren't all the same.

But then I would think that wouldn't I? I have that history thing in my blood and god help me, every general election seems another stirring chapter of the British national epic.

I certainly felt that way on polling day in the brisk autumn of 1964. I'd spent much of October 15 in the suburban Cambridge neither tourists not undergraduates see much of, ferrying grannies to the polls even if they didn't want to go. My approach was as shameless as any hustings hustler of the 18th Century, although cocoa and custard creams were involved rather than pennies and port.

Simon Schama
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The choice that year was between the Tories, in power for 13 years, who told me in Harold Macmillan's famous phrase "we'd never had it so good", and the technology-propelled white-hot New Britain that Harold Wilson's Labour party was promising.

From his hospital bed Macmillan had anointed Sir Alec Douglas Hume as his successor to fight the election and it was this breezy grandeur that irked so many of my generation. Years later my opinion of Macmillan mellowed into a more complicated view - SuperMac as non-doctrinaire manager of the mixed economy and a shrewd player of what few cards Britain had in a post-colonial world.

Which was just as well since one summer evening, late as usual for dinner in the college old combination Room, the young history don Schama managed to trip over the uneven ancient flooring and land in an undignified heap on the oriental carpet. Scrambling to my feet, I found myself looking right at the walrus whiskers of the ex-prime minister who without missing a beat said: "There, there young man, gratitude is one thing - prostration quite unnecessary."

Gratitude towards Harold Macmillan was not, I have to say, uppermost in our minds in October 1964. British rock and roll had conquered the world, London had started to swing and Herman and his Hermits were singing: "Something tells me I'm into something good." How we wanted a piece of that.


Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Crowded into a student common room, our beery shouts willing the swingometer to move, what we got was the dawn of a new political age - but in Moscow not Westminster.

That very night, the dethronement of Nikita Khruschev as secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party, became public and any tingle of excitement about an impending change in Britain was laced with a batsqueak of anxiety about what that might mean for a world never far from nuclear incineration.

When the television returned to British politics only the colours on the tube were black and white. As the night went on, any prospect of a big Labour majority evaporated, and though Wilson went to the Palace the next day, he did so with a bare majority of just four. It was only after the inevitable follow-up election in 1966 that Labour had a sizeable working majority.

But the experience of two years' stewardship of an embattled economy and a pound under siege, had made it gun-shy of the kind of transformational policies that might have seen Jerusalem rising from England's green and pleasant.

Statue of the Duke of Wellington
Wellington resigned from government

It's often been like that, when the shape and character of our political constitution has been at stake. Brought to the brink of big decisions the British temper has often skidded to a halt, the adrenaline rush of the promise of rejuvenation sedated by a hankering for the tried and true. The result? A damned close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington said of the battle of Waterloo.

He may well have said it 15 years later in 1830, when as sitting prime minister for a Tory government that had been in uninterrupted power for almost a quarter of a century, he went to the people. Only the death of King George IV, whose passing went conspicuously unlamented, had made the election unavoidable.

In those days, to allow people to get in their pony traps and clip clop to the polls, voting took weeks not a single day - which if we're all still under a volcanic cloud in the weeks ahead is a practice that might well bear reconsideration. But what was going on in the summer of 1830 was a social eruption - violent riots, hayrick burning and machine destruction in the countryside by foot soldiers who styled themselves anonymously as "Captain Swing". That was the nickname out-of-work farm labourers gave to the hand threshing flail that had been replaced by the new machines, robbing them of a livelihood at a time when food prices were soaring.

Big on drama

On the other side of the Channel, things were more ominous. A revolution had sent the Bourbon King Charles X packing. Even for Wellington, who had spent much of his life whacking the French, this was a bit too close for comfort. Out came the militia.

But the big question going into the late July election of 1830 was which approach would best avert the horrors of bloody turmoil. Wellington's devotion to enforced social order or a measure of change? The Whig opposition that had languished in the wilderness for so long, insisted that only by sweeping away what they called "old corruption" - constituencies in the gift of the landed classes - and giving every male householder who paid £10 in rates the vote and most of all, at last giving the franchise to the industrial towns where the solid citizens of Britain's new wealth resided - Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, could a French fate be avoided.

Wellington won the election. But so narrowly, and with a party so divided on what was best for the country, that he could not afford a misstep. But on November 2nd 1830, the Duke stuck out his famously chiselled jaw and pronounced the existing constitution as the most excellent conceivable from the mind of man. To tinker with it was to invite not avert, bloody turmoil.

So when you think you can't stand it any more - the drone of punditry, the soft rain of cliches falling like Icelandic ash - just remember British politics really is, and has always been, big on drama

But his own cabinet responded to the Iron Duke line by disintegrating. Wellington resigned and the new King William IV, thought to be more sympathetic to parliamentary change than his predecessor, called on Earl Grey to form a Whig government committed to it.

In March 1831 one of those debates about the nature of British politics that lights up its history, unfolded from three in the afternoon to two in the morning on the floor of the House of Commons - a floor by the way that would burn to ashes in a great fire three years later. The star orator was the young political essayist who would become the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay. He had been in Paris just after the revolution and as a decided reformer believed only a knife taken to old corruption could save Britain from the same fate. He should have known.

He was only sitting in the Commons as MP for the Wiltshire seat of Calne because the rich Whig grandee Lord Landsdowne had it in his pocket and made Macaulay the gift of it. Just a little token electioneering, Lansdowne explained would be all that was necessary for the election. Macaulay put on a bold face and, as someone committed to the abolition of slavery, told his patron he'd be beholden to no-one, but the truth was that his embarrassment only made his zeal for reform more passionate.

On the 2nd of March, the ruddy-faced portly little man was on his feet, warning in a voice so passionate and so quick that the deafer members had trouble making out what he was saying.


"Save the greatest fairest and most highly civilised community that has ever existed from calamities. The danger is terrible, the time is short. If this bill is rejected I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may remember their votes with remorse amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property and the dissolution of social order."

Macaulay's eloquence may have saved the day, for the bill went through by just a single vote. The hold-outs were mortified. "The shouts broke out and many of us shed tears," Macaulay wrote. "And the jaw of Peel fell and the face of Twiss was as the face of a damned soul and Herries looked like Judas."

Even then the Lords vetoed it, only caving in when the King - his hand forced - threatened to pack the Upper House with reforming peers.

So when you think you can't stand it any more - the drone of punditry, the soft rain of cliches falling like Icelandic ash - just remember British politics really is, and has always been, big on drama.

A thriller, moreover, that is very often about something important - democratic representation, justice, liberty, money and power. It doesn't get more serious than that.

Below is a selection of your comments

I was fascinated by this morning's broadcast. As the son of a former Returning Officer and the grandson of one of the first women to get the vote, I've always been entranced by the dance and structure of Politics. I don't hold a strong party allegiance, but I do hold to the duty to make my views known, to participate and then to vote. I'm always deeply saddened when someone opts out, however they all know not to moan to me about anything; they'll soon be reminded that they had the chance and neglected to vote. It's a hard-won right, something we should never take for granted. Thank you to Dr Schama for reminding us.
Peter Roberts, WINCHESTER, UK

I'm an ex-pat of many many years, but there is still nothing to beat British Election night. I remember the excitement of that Wilson election and most of the others succeeding and it's to be hoped that Britain's Americanization of its constitution stalls before our uniqueness completely disappears. However, on election nights, while still living in Europe, I'd host a party of people of all political persuasions. In the US, five or six hours behind the UK, I used to tune into short wave radio. In 2005, if I remember the technology correctly, I was listening deep into the morning, central time US, when things has slowed considerably. I was loathe to switch off and go to bed, and so I was lying on the floor thinking all the excitement was over, when the BBC switched to Bethnal Green. In a few minutes, the most memorable speech of that night had me electrified.
Bernadette Cahill, Boone, North Carolina, USA

Thrilling and serious as it may be for a history don, the reality is quite different for the majority of us. We have little time to ponder the wider implications of our vote, instead our choice is fed by a fatty fast food diet of sound bytes and media hype. Break it down into really simple choices and impress on everyone how vital it is to use their vote, even if it is used as a protest. If British freedom and liberty is being eroded in a media flood then ballot papers are the only sandbags we have.
scott taylor, corfe castle dorset uk

There is certainly a mystique around an election count. I once managed, the morning after a general election, to cash a cheque with no form of identification other than an 'admission to count' card (I had left my bank card at the office). The manager said that anyone who could be trusted at a general election count must be trustworthy enough to pay by cheque. The count card did not even have a name on it.
Andy Finney, Godalming, Surrey

I can't even begin to get excited about this election. Your description of the events in the 1830s made my hair stand on end. When was the last time contemporary politics did that?
Alex, London, UK

I don't like Simon Sharma's story. Like many journalists and historians before him, he is perpetuating the myth that calamity and near disaster is somehow satisfying for the immature British psyche, and therefore fundamentality the 'natural' way for us to go on.

The truth is that the major parties, Clegg's included, have all become irrelevant because what the people want from their leaders more than anything is professionalism, co-operation and expertise and as a result a stable and values-driven civil society that will secure as good a standard of living as our European neighbours, if not better. I appreciate that this story is not very exciting for journalists but it's time that they got a lot better at listening to and interpreting society and started exploding rather than perpetuating myths.
David Randall, Surbiton, UK

But did these people, whom hindsight and history paint as pivotal and dramatic, appear so to the citizens of their time? Or did they seem to their electorate as mediocre and self-serving as the current crop of politicians appear to us today? This is the core of history, not just what folks did, but why... and how the people of that time felt, rather than how we view them from the present day.
Megan, Cheshire UK

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