So far, what an infuriating election campaign. We have the most extraordinary array of digital, paper and broadcasting media at our fingertips — excellent political columnists, shrewd and experienced number-crunchers, vivid bloggers and dedicated fact-checkers. There has never been a general election in which the interested voter has had access to so much carefully assembled and up-to-the-minute data. And it’s unpredictable, and it matters: the recovery on a knife edge, the future of the UK, our future in Europe — all that. It ought to be thrilling. So why is the campaign proving so tooth-grindingly awful? Simply because the parties have chosen to refuse to tell us what we need to know. There’s this thing called the deficit (you may have heard about it). It’s sitting there like a great stinking ordure in the middle of public life. If it isn’t shovelled away over the next five years, we are all going to spend ever more on debt interest. To deal with it, big taxes have to go up — I don’t mean just the mansion tax, but taxes that hit most of us — or very large and extremely painful cuts in public spending must be made; or some combination of both. We know this. It’s the uncomfortable truth bracketing the entire campaign. So — which taxes, when? Which cuts, where?
Before the campaign started, we were getting somewhere: I could interview Cameron or Osborne and make some progress in finding out where cuts would be made. When pressed, Ed Balls was starting to talk about which projects he might scrap, and about tough decisions in unprotected departmental budgets. Now? All that has closed down completely. The Tories seem to have forgotten that the Autumn Statement ever happened. They now want to spend huge extra amounts of money on the NHS; Labour has ruled out almost all tax rises for most voters. And the other parties want to spend more and certainly don’t want to talk about taxation. The deficit? Apparently if it’s left alone it’s just going to melt away. Huddled-down, risk-averse politicians from all the main parties have decided to treat us like credulous children.
Gaah! And it’s not as if timidity is doing much for Labour or the Tories. They are both still stuck, frozen in the polls. The SNP insurgency, which is starting to feel like a national revolution in Scotland, looks set to be the fundamental story of the election. ’s hardly Nicola Sturgeon’s fault: she’s simply saying what she’s said for years, clearly and enthusiastically. No, if the main parties are being elbowed aside that’s their fault and nobody else’s. It isn’t too late to change tack, is it? Either that, or we’re going to have to pray for more bacon sandwiches, punches, and David Cameron going mad with the lettuce heart in his lovely kitchen.
My children have an automatic put-down for overprivileged complaints — whinges about Waitrose parking, or whatever. They say: ‘#firstworldproblems’. And for the rest of the country, I imagine, there can be few more irritating things than Londoners complaining about the wall of foreign money crashing across us. But as London morphs into dozens of square miles of asset management, ordinary life is throttled. In Primrose Hill, we had two small business parks, crammed with local, high-employment businesses. Both are being turned into luxury housing to be sold off-plan in the Far East. Our pubs have gone the same way. All around me, small shops and cafés are going out of business because you can’t sell sandwiches to investors sitting in Shanghai. #Firstworldproblems, indeed. But London is being destroyed.
Never mind, there’s still lots to enjoy as the warm weather finally arrives. To raise funds for the local library, we’ve got a brilliant little scheme: people living all around are being encouraged to draw, paint or photograph one another, to produce a kind of visual tapestry of the community. I have been drawn in chalks and have been told to sally out and sketch a dog-walker, a concierge, a punk poet and a shop owner. It’s a brilliant way of putting people from different backgrounds in touch with one another, and it should provide a timely antidote to the belief that north London is entirely occupied by millionaire Marxist intellectuals. At any rate, I haven’t been asked to draw one of them yet.
In Paris recently, I went to the reopened Musée Picasso, a wonderful storehouse. But, in the context of the great debate about 20th-century painting — Picasso or Matisse? — I found myself staggered by the quantity of anger and hatred in room after room of Picassos. When finally, on the top floor, we found some Matisses, they blew the Picassos away. Almost nobody now tries to draw or paint like Picasso. Almost everybody wants to paint or draw like Matisse. Debate over.
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