Even before campaigning was suspended last Tuesday, this general election campaign felt unusual, perfunctory and often detached from reality. I imagine this has a lot to do with it being unexpected; 'snap' ballots are intended to take political opponents by surprise, although as we discovered early last week it doesn't necessarily mean the protagonists are any better prepared. Earlier this week, meanwhile, we learned that the Conservatives were going to 'relaunch' their campaign with just 10 days to go.
Which was understandable, given the car crash over social care policy and Theresa May's less than inspiring performance on the campaign trail, particularly on television. So, in tragic circumstances, a suspension of a few days gave the Tories a chance to reset, start over. This, naturally, gave rise to conspiracy theories in the usual dark corners of the internet: that the Manchester atrocity was contrived to get the prime minister out of a hole after last Monday's nadir, that her response to the attack allowed her to put troops on the street and thus appear strong, regaining the initiative amid a declining poll lead.
The SNP, meanwhile, has been at the particular mercy of external events. A few months ago, it had to delay its big set-piece Holyrood debate on independence following mayhem at Westminster, while last week its manifesto launch, scheduled for Edinburgh last Tuesday morning, was delayed for a full week and shifted to Perth, with just nine sleeps before polling day. The change in location was interesting, for polls suggest the SNP could slip to around 40% of the vote. Though still impressive considering it's governed Scotland for more than a decade, shedding 10% of its support might also mean losing a dozen of its MPs, including, potentially, Pete Wishart in Perth and North Perthshire. What better boost than a glitzy manifesto launch and an appearance from Nicola Sturgeon to shore up his position against a Tory challenger?
All this seemed far away in the Highlands, where between Thursday afternoon and Sunday evening I walked the Great Glen Way with a visitor from Brooklyn. The snap general election had also caught me unawares, thus this was my second absence from the campaign trail in as many weeks, a trip to Iraq, Turkey and Greece having also been planned far in advance of the prime minister's electoral machinations. Given the logistics – and cost – involved in both, I was reluctant to reschedule.
And given the uncharacteristically good weather, it proved a tonic. My companion also provided a valuable outsider's perspective on events in Scotland and the UK, and from me he received a crash-course in UK history, all of which reminded me what a weird 'state of nations' we inhabit. We started with the history of England and Scotland, which went well enough, but when we got on to Ireland (north and south) the American started to furrow his brow. He was used to much tidier history, codified constitutions and relatively straightforward explanations of national progression. We decided to skip Wales.
The election only occasionally intruded as we covered more than 70 miles from Inverness to Fort William. A friendly restauranteur in Drumnadrochit recognised me from TV punditry and we got chatting about the local constituency, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, where the SNP incumbent Drew Hendry is defending a near 11,000 majority. I ventured that he'd probably be fine, and the restauranteur declared him a 'good constituency MP', which I'm sure he is. Otherwise, we encountered lots of American trekkers who volunteered their dislike of Trump early on in conversation, and a Guardian reader from Bedfordshire who reckoned Jeremy Corbyn was in with a chance of victory. Only occasionally was my mobile phone signal strong enough to allow me to catch up with election news. This was a good thing.
So now we're on the cusp of the last full week of campaigning, and I can't remember having felt so disengaged from a UK election. Beyond columnising and attending manifesto launches (oh, and one leaders' debate), I've struggled to remain engaged to any degree, and I've been a full-blown political anorak for almost 20 years. Many of my friends and acquaintances, members of all parties and none, apparently feel the same.
That, I would suggest, is a problem, not that I'm arrogant enough to view myself as some sort of political barometer, but there's a real sense that politics, or perhaps more specifically political discourse, is becoming more and more debased, more often than not a blatant pitch to the lowest common denominator rather than a genuine attempt to elevate or find solutions to long-standing problems, economic, social and cultural.
Part of the problem, no doubt, is simply voter (and therefore pundit) fatigue. Since 2010 there's been a relentless onslaught of elections, referendums and political upsets, especially in Scotland, and while stimulating on a certain level – not to mention productive (certainly not lucrative) for a freelancer such as myself – with each contest I've emerged even more depressed at the standard of debate, something that seems unlikely to improve any time soon.
In my weekly Herald column, I quoted the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who once said politics was the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. That's how this general election feels to me, not to mention the ongoing nationalistic battle between red-white-and-blue Brexit and supposedly 'progressive' Scottish independence. A plague, I say, on both their houses.
Photograph by fodt (https://www.flickr.com/photos/fod/201259829)
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