Change you can believe in, promised Nick Clegg at the start of this election campaign.
And now, said Gordon Brown on becoming Prime Minister, let the work of change begin. David Camerons slogan is simpler still: Vote for change.
Change is the buzz-word; change the chorus; change the cry. This, declared a communications industry friend of mine in sonorous tones, is the change election.
No it isnt. Its the anything-but- change election. Its the head-in-the- sand election. Its the block-your-ears- and-screw-up-your-eyes election. The Argentine middle classes bang saucepans; the Greeks riot; and the British splutter that theyre so fed up theyve a good mind to vote for that Liberal Dem-whatever fellow in the nice tie on TV who says he hates the politicians as much as they do.
Change is the last thing the British people want. They want things to carry on as they are. They are losing confidence in their politics to arrange it. Thats why theyre angry. Do you imagine change is what the Greek mob want? No, its change they fear.
We are in the same condition as the benighted Greeks, but not so far down the primrose path: dimly aware of the truth, scared of the truth, angry with the truth, and howling for the head of any politician who threatens to admit the truth.
The truth is simple: were living beyond our means. The change if change were what we were really prepared to embrace is simple: we will have to live within our means.
What are we doing to do next, when whatever government we get tells us we cant have what we want? Bang our heads against the nursery wall until the IMF gives us some money? Hold our breath and go blue in the face until the Government borrows a few billions more?
Nick Clegg is a better man than the easy-riding populist he has been morphing into as the three TV debates unfolded, so I hope he wont take what follows personally: but I have the unsuppressible feeling that for the pollsters respondents, saying theyre ruddy well going to vote for that Clegg fellow is a kind of dirty protest. In other countries they spoil their ballot papers. Everyone is talking about the political process. Changing the process is displacement activity: a substitute for change.
Ive been wanting to write this since the election campaign began, but felt cowed by the unremitting screech for change, from press and politicians alike. It was the one thing everyone seemed to agree on: that what the voters wanted was change.
But whenever I asked what it was that the populace desired to change from, and what they desired to change to, I received no answer. And still the screech grew: change, change, change. So was there an idea, a potential plan, a revolution in our governance, for which the electorate really do yearn: some inchoate new shape to policy that they struggle to articulate? If so, Im damned if I know what it is. It has become the cliché of the hour to complain that, asked to complete, in 30 words or fewer, the sentence A Conservative/Labour/Lib Dem government will . . ., few door- knocking activists in any party could persuasively reply. Well, lets try the boot on the other foot. Why not require a cross-section of the anti-politics we want change mob to complete, in 30 words or fewer, the sentence: We want change to a Government which would . . . Would what? Theyve no idea.
David Cameron has made repeated attempts to articulate a new philosophy of government that does imply change: self-help, or the Big Society as its now being marketed. From the focus groups he has received a raspberry for his pains. If Ive heard the yelp We dont want to run a school. We just want the Government to provide a good school, once, Ive heard it a dozen times.
To which a tempting response would be: I dare say you do, chuck. And you want a good hospital too. And a good inflation-proofed pension. And more police. And more nurses. And lower taxes. But I want doesnt get. Its the kind of response that, were I still in politics, unwittingly miked-up and broadcasting live from the back of a car, I might have given. And then had to apologise profusely for my gaffe.
For, make no mistake, the electorates anger at their politicians is mirrored by the politicians anger at the electorate. You will not hear it expressed in public (except when a microphone has been left on) but it is there. The anger of our politicians is the anger not of the master but the servant: the impotent rage of the slave. They have been routinely abused, insulted, called liars, accused of vast and multifarious corruption and had their honour and their sense of public duty dragged through the mud. They have been told to promise the delivery of what they know cannot be delivered; and when any among them has been rash enough to suggest that a nation must cut its coat according to its cloth, the pollsters have told him hell be punished for it.
But this, the politicians know, is a democracy. The voter is boss. Those who run for office must persuade their abusers to vote for them, or perish. So they grin and take it, bowing and scraping to the electorate and trying to ingratiate themselves into their abusers affections. During the TV debates the snivelling deference showed by all three party leaders to their questioners was toe-curling. Gordon Browns sick, whey-faced smile as he confessed to the lynch mob outside Mrs Duffys front door that he was a penitent sinner summed it all up.
Thats why, for all their squawking for change, none of the party leaders will tell us what we will lose, rather than gain, under a new government. And when next week this new government is in place, and orders the cuts it must, the scream of the mob will intensify this time with a new complaint: You never told us.
No, they never did. And wed never have voted for them if they had. It is we, the people, who are demanding a false prospectus. Now weve got three to choose from. And in due course, well get the betrayal we richly deserve.