There’s an episode of Doctor Who called Gridlock, which finds the inhabitants of 5,000,000,053 AD New New York stuck in a never-ending traffic jam. It’s just their life now, in the same way that elections are just our life now. The Scottish referendum, the 2015 general election, the EU referendum, the 2017 general election: the UK exists in a state of permalection – a bit like Narnia, where it’s always winter but never Christmas.
Perhaps one logical result of rolling news was always going to be rolling elections. The content – politics, we used to call it – has evolved to suit the form. Questions are not settled for the duration of a couple of years, let alone a generation. And of course, we’ve never been short of dystopian fictions set 10 minutes into the future, where horrible contests have become a sort of national entertainment.
So maybe this was always, somehow, Britain’s destiny. But I obviously assumed the horrible contest would be something involving young and ridiculously hot people. I was thinking more Jennifer Lawrence than Tim Farron – and protagonists with names like Machine Gun Joe and Katniss, as opposed to Jeremy or Theresa.
We've walked into the least-promising sequel since Weekend at Bernie’s II, and the cinema doors are now locked
Instead, we have become the galaxy’s lamest and dowdiest dystopia – a place of permanent elections. It’s like we’re some crap high-concept planet from The Phantom Menace, where the Jedi only stop to refuel and pick up a Yorkie before moving on to more civilised hellholes.
Or perhaps it’s bleaker even than that. Terminator 6: Rise of the Ballot Boxes. If we had electronic ones, you’d be mad to consider the fourth vote in as many years and not suspect the work of Skynet. To watch Tuesday’s opening scene, where Theresa May announced the election in Downing Street, was to know exactly what sort of movie you were in for. This is one where, pretty soon, Christian Bale is going to slide tearfully down the back of a door with his head in his hands. So tired of fighting. So very, very tired.
In fact, one of the neater dramatic ironies of the current election is the continuing bunfight over freedom of movement, which is based on the notion that the permalection island is somewhere everyone wants to move into – and not the John Carpenter-movie prison that it ends up as in act two. We’ll all be paging Snake Plissken, eventually.
Even now, the idea of going through it all again – and so soon! – feels like not so much a car crash as a plane crash. I’m sure we all want to make the best of it, like Katy Perry does in the Roar video. But which of us has the strength? It isn’t that we haven’t dealt with the hangover from the last one – it’s that we’re still drunk from the last one. This election feels like waking up in your clothes after two hours’ sleep and realising it’s time to leave for work.
I know it’s supposed to be the quinquennial/biennial/increasingly annual moment of actual democracy in the cycle, but general elections are the time when it feels most like politics is something that is done to us voters, rather than with us, or – even more unimaginably – for us. If you can survey the shitshow of the coming seven weeks and remark to the political class: “you laid on all this … for me?” with anything other than sledgehammer sarcasm, you may be the last pure human. Christian Bale wants to hear from you.
Yet there is, paradoxically, a real camaraderie to be found across the political spectrum at moments such as this. Not everyone, of course – you’re never going to get everyone. But from left to right, leave to remain, significant portions of the electorate were united this week by the sentiment voiced by Brenda from Bristol , the lady informed by a BBC news correspondent that there was to be another general election: “You’re joking? Not ANOTHER ONE. Oh for God’s sake … I can’t … Honestly, I can’t stand this.” Speak for England, Brenda! And for Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. Brenda’s the new Lucy Howarth – the child who was photographed during the 2015 general election with her head on the desk as David Cameron made some point or other to her. God, I loved Lucy. A general election recalls those lessons in school that were so awful that the whole class temporarily puts their rivalries and divisions aside and comes together in sullen mutual loathing of the supposed authority figure. It’s you versus them. It’s another brick in the wall.
As for Them, what can be said? We’ve all heard the age-old warning about generals always fighting the last war. So you’ll no doubt have been thrilled to read everywhere this week that this is an election about Brexit. There’s no point saying, “Wait – didn’t we just have that election? Yes, we literally just had it less than a year ago.” There is no point. Just accept that you’ve somehow walked into the least-promising sequel since Weekend at Bernie’s II, and the cinema doors are now locked.
Or perhaps this general election is the off-season show to the referendum – occupying the space that Britain’s Got Talent used to share with The X Factor. Certainly, I wouldn’t like to end this column without another shoutout to the karaoke Sauron, dear old Simon Cowell, worshipped and desperately courted by a particular generation of politicians from Gordon Brown to David Cameron, who to a man lacked the imagination to understand that what they were seeing on their tellies every Saturday night might not be entirely positive for the psychological evolution of the nation.
As with all reality TV formats, conflict was the holy grail, and the contestants were all encouraged to degrade themselves one way or another in pursuit of the prize by unseen producers, who manipulated the public into repeatedly voting – at financial cost – for the results.
Yet Brown went so far as to call for “an X Factor Britain”. The good news, Gordon, is that we got what you wished for. We’ve now got a new series of The Election every year, where everyone gets madly caught up in the latest contest even though all entrants are basically competing for the chance to get emotionlessly dropped by Simon’s record label in six months’ time. It’s not quite the sort of script that would interest Paul Verhoeven, in all honesty – but then, we’re very much a B-movie now.