Playing To The 'Great King Box' (1 November 1974)
Just a few reflections on the general election, now that it is over and done with. Non-party reflections, of course. As I have said before, I am the most floating of floating voters. So if you read anything party-political into any of these lines, it is in your eye, not mine.
For 20 years I covered all the general elections locally for the Gazette. During those campaigns I was occasionally approached by officers and workers of the various parties. They said: “Look, you’re a chap with his ear to the ground: tell me privately how you think it’s going.” And I was never able to hazard a guess, even if I had thought it wise, which I didn’t.
In those days I thought this was due to my ear being too near the ground. Now I know it was not due to that. Two more general elections have happened since my retirement. I have had nothing to do with them. My ear has been nowhere near the ground. I have been free to hazard a guess.
Yet in neither campaign have I felt able to sense the local winner. So in this respect you can consign me permanently to the list of “Don’t Knows.”
But something happened at the recent election which I found decidedly odd, for want of a better word. It happened at the declaration of the poll at the Bletchley Leisure Centre. The Gazette reported it like this.
“The result came shortly after mid-day – with the declaration being televised live by BBC in the Centre’s sports hall.
“There was a pause on the platform while acting retaining officer Mr. Erroll Ray, waited – apparently for a cue from the TV team.
“Then came his announcement of the voting figures – and cheers for the Conservative victory.”
It is not the fact that the count and declaration were made in the sports hall that interests me. On the contrary, I find that rather suitable – a kind of whimsical silent comment on the nature of the event.
What does interest me is the statement that the acting returning officer waited – “apparently for a cue from the TV team.”
When I read that I exclaimed to myself: “Ho, ho. What have we here? The press and the public used to have to wait until the returning officer was ready. Now the returning officer, the public and the press all have to wait until the BBC is ready!”
The wait may have been negligible, but however short it was, I take it as yet another example of how the conduct of affairs is becoming increasingly subordinate to the requirements of ‘Great King Box’.
I cannot recall that any such great consideration was ever given to the requirements of the Press, or to the Press Association correspondents (who still supply the bulk of results). Often I have almost had to fight my way through crowds to get to a telephone and report a thank you speech at the same time.
Yet when television cameras come on the scene it seems that everybody goes goo-eyed and bends over backwards to oblige, although a plain notice of the figures on the screen would do just as well as far as the national public is concerned.
For the duration of the campaign the box bombarded us with national politics to the extent that there are faces of politicians and commentators alike that I do not want to see again for a long time to come. Yet there were some issues, like the Common Market issue, about which I was no clearer at the end than I had been at the beginning.
What hope is there now for the genuine independent? As much hope as there would have been for the Labour Party if the box had existed in their formative years. There has been talk of banning opinion polls during election campaigns. A better idea might be to cut down the operation of the box.
And now another question: Isn’t’ it about time something was done about the name of the local constituency? As a rule, I am all in favour of tradition – even to the point of eccentricity – but not in this case. Buckingham was one of the “rotten boroughs” that sent members to Parliament while newer, city-sized places elsewhere had no direct representation at all.
When that appalling state of affairs was remedied, Buckingham was mollified by having its name attached to this large chunk of the county – a chunk then containing six other towns and about 90 villages.
This could have been justified at the time. But as early as 70 years ago, the political weight had passed to Wolverton and especially to Bletchley, where most of the political organisations already had their headquarters. Despite this, however, Buckingham remained the best place for the count and the declaration of the poll.
Now the count and declaration have moved to Bletchley. Buckingham is no longer the best place. In local government also it is separate from much of the major part of the constituency. It no longer has a useful claim. Eccentricity, much as I love it, much now give way to reason.
What name then? Not “Bletchley.” Nor “Milton Keynes.” Places like Winslow and Buckingham itself must still be made to feel themselves part of the constituency. For years the local Press have described the Member as “MP for North Bucks.” So “North Buckinghamshire” would be my choice.