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Leading article The Week

Battle for England

As we celebrate St George’s Day, it is worth asking just what England has done to deserve being landed in such a mess.

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

21 April 2010

12:00 AM

As we celebrate St George’s Day, it is worth asking just what England has done to deserve being landed in such a mess. She certainly did not vote for it. In the last election, the Conservatives won the most English votes. And no one, aside from 24,500 Fifers, has ever crossed a box beside Gordon Brown’s name. Yet the Labour Prime Minister has had a free rein to trample all over England’s economy. The voting system, many conclude, is a joke. So why not throw the mother of all spanners into the works — and vote Lib Dem?

The English have a long record of defying authority that they do not respect. So many people declared themselves ‘Jedis’ in the last official census that it is now on record as the nation’s fourth largest religion. A man in a money suit was elected Mayor of Hartlepool. During this election campaign, there is a similar appetite for blowing a raspberry at the whole process. And in Nick Clegg, millions have found a perfect raspberry.

But the comedy is marred by the fact that the implications are so severe. It is correct to assume that a mass Lib Dem vote would cause yet more chaos. Current polls point towards a hung parliament, which in Britain means a nasty, brutish and short parliament. But the disparity between votes cast and seats won would be such that Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg may club together and talk about their duty to ‘reform our politics’ — which of course would mean reforming our democratic system so that it that favours a Lib-Lab coalition. They did exactly that with the Scottish parliament.

It would be foolish to think that if Mr Cameron won the most votes, a sense of fairness would stop Mr Brown from giving the Conservatives their due. There was no such decency when Labour abandoned its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the European constitution, or when Brown moved to treble the national debt, burdening future generations, so he could embark on a pre-election spending binge. This government has treated public opinion with contempt — contempt which is now being reciprocated.

A hung parliament would be a disaster. Coalitions do not work in Westminster’s adversarial system. A hung parliament means a second election — so instead of collaborating, as politicians do on the Continent, British MPs would have their political daggers drawn. The bond market would take fright, sending Britain into the same A&E ward as Greece and Iceland. Little wonder that a thousand people a day are leaving these shores, believing that the departure lounge — rather than the ballot box — is the only way to better schools and safer streets.

This is a dismal state of affairs. Now is not the time to list the many failures in the Conservative campaign that have brought us to this point. But as James Forsyth argues on page 14, the stakes have now increased dramatically. Mr Cameron risks losing not just this election but — if the voting system is changed — future ones too. If Britain ends up with a Scottish voting system then it is hard to see how a Conservative revolution such as that which transformed Britain in the 1980s would be possible again.

There is still time for Mr Cameron to win this contest outright. To do so, he must pull his campaign, and himself, together. England expects.

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