Our Pencil Revolution

A survey of revolutions since 1989 shows them to be peaceful, driven by the educated and middle-class and seeking a democratic engagement with the wider world. Now it is our turn as the popular desire for real reform has lifted the Lib Dems onto its shoulders
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 April 2010

A historic, electoral insurgency is underway in Britain. In a very significant post on the You Gov site twittered but not yet publicised in the mainstream media, its Chairman Peter Kellner writes,


We asked:  “How would you vote on May 6 if you thought the Liberal Democrats had a significant chance of winning the election”. The responses: Lib Dem 49%, Conservative 25%, Labour 19%. On the – admittedly unrealistic – assumption of uniform national swing, there would be 548 Lib Dem MPs, 41 Labour MPs and just 25 Tories”.

How delightful is that!

Kellner goes on to say “It won’t happen”. But note the question. YouGov asked those it polled how they would vote if the Lib Dems had merely “a significant chance of winning”. Who has ever put that qualification in front of a question about voting Labour or Tory?

If it were to become clear to voters that the Lib Dems can indeed win and it won’t be a “wasted vote” to support them, the delicious prospect of actually punishing both Labour and Tory leaderships with the stroke of a pencil will be too much to resist.

This has happened without the sustained support of a single major newspaper or media channel. David Yellend, who was Rupert Murdoch’s editor of the Sun for five years, has published a pungent account based on his experience at the frontline. He says the Lib Dems were effectively banned and excluded from the “great game” of power operated by “all proprietors and editors”. They are now doing everything they can to the party and its leader and more importantly, to intimidate voters, in an attempt to ensure that the public doesn’t believe it can choose differently.

They will be cheered on by the Ayatollahs of our thankfully bloodless confrontation – the Mandelsons and Camerons, the Coulsons and Campbells, who are deploying every instrument and influence they can to suppress the electoral insurgency, like so many smirking Ahmadinejads.

In the process Nick himself may slip and fall. Nonetheless, he is right to say that the genie has finally been released from its ‘Made in Britain’ tin can.

Huw Spanner tweeted to say it’s “The Graphite Revolution”, referring to the lead in the pencils in the voting booths. Obviously he is from the pencil generation. But then so are our ballot papers.

Did I hear “Revolution”? “Revolution?” – pause for a sneer - just because of a television show? The best prose writer among our political leaders, Boris Johnson, was scathing in the Telegraph,

"I am certain that the Tories will win, and that the current fantasy of a Liberal Democrat resurgence is the biggest load of media-driven nonsense since the funeral of Diana."

Whoops! Before you could say “Stalinism” that brilliant sentence was airbrushed out of the official record on Boris’s website.

The comparison was apt, too close for comfort even. Diana managed to project herself as an attractive, modern opponent of “the establishment” in her winsome interview. It’s pedantry to argue whether or not this was true – the confrontation killed her. Then a stuffy, complicit, presumptuous monarchy – the old establishment indeed – declined even to fly the flag at half-mast. The people refused to be taken for granted and took to the Mall. The Royals, the personification of our constitution, were obliged to put their old protocols where they belonged.  The monarchy will never regain its untouchable aura, as it was shepherded into the spin-doctor’s pen to ensure its survival.

Something similar is happening now. Its peaceful, reasonable character should not be scorned, this is in fact the sign of a modern insurgency in its wisdom and grasp of what is possible. Already, it has induced the rage of The Mail, which called on its readers to “Wake up and get real”, denouncing the Lib Dem’s “commitment to proportional representation, with the paralysis and chicanery that involves, that could have a devastating effect on Britain” and demanding, “The British electorate needs to wake up to avoid sleep-walking into disaster.”

The Mail too takes the patronising view that it was all caused by an “utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics”.

The narcissism of the media knows few bounds. It wasn’t the TV debate that propelled Clegg to where he is currently. It was a public looking for a means to deliver an already strongly felt opinion: that the old parties are mendacious and permissive defenders of a rotten status quo. Everyone is talking about Nick Clegg’s sails and rigging, and very fine they are too. But it was the wind of opinion that caught them which matters. Happy the country that sees such a wind fill Clegg’s canvas rather than UKIPs.

Most of the British media are also stuck in a clichéd timewarp when it comes to revolution. They are obsessed with the idea that a revolution must mean barricades, bloodshed and cordite. But what we are witnessing can best be described as “the revolution of the normal”, as I have argued.

Globally we are witnessing a new kind of revolution, most obviously since 1989. A survey of them shows them to be peaceful, driven by the educated and middle-class and seeking a democratic engagement with the wider world. Now it is our turn. It was clear enough last year, after the expenses crisis:

"Today, the toxic cynicism of a failed renewal and bad faith fills the air in Britain alongside a new and widespread belief that it just cannot go on like this anymore…. Everyone knows in their bones that a profound normalisation is now called for. Few imagine that the Conservatives will deliver this."

This is what many of us are taking part in here in Britain: a peaceful insurgency that desires honourable, honest politics and to drag the UK out of the clammy remnants of the old regime with the Lords and Ladies and Parliamentary prerogatives. Clegg’s advantage is that he seems to be a regular person, without a hint of extremism or eccentricity. I’m not saying he is as thick as the bloke next door or a regular, average kind of guy. I am not saying he isn’t privileged or well-educated. I’m saying that despite these advantages he appears to be normal, just like a fair voting system, and this is what the country wants if it is permitted to choose it.

The electoral insurrection of 2010 is still some way from succeeding. But the impact of its ‘Graphite Revolution’ will not be easily erased now that popular desire for real reform has lifted the Lib Dems onto its shoulders. A Mandelson- or Cameron-run government may topple him in a fortnight’s time to seize command of Downing Street. But it will not have democratic legitimacy. 

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