The poster patrol, we were told, goes out every day. Canvassers return from their trips into the hills with intelligence of possible sites: the best news is a supportive farmers with a long frontage on a well-used road. So as the Land Rover bumped over cattle-grids and plunged into leafy tunnels and up again into the mountains of mid-Wales we were constantly spotting election posters apparently miles from human habitation: a stretch of blue Conservative, and then – cheers! – an even longer stretch of Day-glo orange. We thought we had sighted a particularly brilliant clutch of Liberal posters the other side of the valley, but it turned out when we reached it to be the local council’s road resurfacing crew.
Like all victims (or beneficiaries) of mid-term by-elections, the inhabitants of Brecon and Radnor are learning to accept with a certain wry enjoyment the invasion by the media and party activists. They clutter the village streets and it means one has to answer the door bell several times a day, but at least they are good for trade. A lot of freshly killed Welsh lamb has been bought.
Anyway, the locals are used to eccentric strangers. In the cafe was a large and noisy group of young people from Leicester in woolly hats and bovver boots. They were camping up in the hills and making a film about a group of survivors after the end of modern civilization, reverting to savagery until rescued by two girls from a superior colony. It sounded like a cross between Lord of the Flies and John Wyndham’s Chrysalids: End of Mankind it was called. The cafe owner nodded encouragement as they explained it all and plied them with huge plates of egg and chips.
Polls on this by-election show up a large number of ‘undecideds’. That may be so, but what struck us was the large number of posters – most people, apparently, cheerfully prepared to tell the world how they were voting. Even the cafe and the bed and breakfast in the small town we were sent to had joined in, and were sporting (respectively) Liberal and Labor posters. The shop next door had a large placard reading ‘If fish had votes, we’d have no acid rain’. It was all very good humored: even the Alliance’s main street headquarters turned out to have been loaned as a favor between friends by a Labor supporter.
This, even more than the sound of rushing water and bleating lambs, was balm to those of us used to London politics. No wonder so many of our compatriots had made their escape to these parts. For there were a fair number of English names dotted among the Gwillams and Davieses and Georges. Peeking through the windows of remote, shut up cottages and seeing the Habitat upholstery and the rush matting, we decided a lot of them were weekenders. ‘Bet they come from Kentish Town’, somebody said as we jolted to a stop outside a lovingly restored barn-cum-pottery. She was only a few miles out: it was Edmonton.
But most of the homes were Welsh, and the response was invariably friendly. Where else have I can vassed for a whole day without once having the door slammed in my face? The only dirty look I got was from a duck, gazing down in a superior way from a hay-loft as I stood in the farmyard asking directions – a more frequent inquiry that day than voting intentions.
But it was not all an idyll. Rural poverty, one of the most silent of today’s problems, was visible in the shabby and crumbling little council estates clinging to the edges of many of the towns and villages; and there is rising anxiety about fraying public services – buses, schools, hospitals. The issues throughout Thatcher’s Britain are not as different as the scenery.
Yet reflecting on the experience as the 125 hurtled us back to Paddington, and generalizing in that outrageously unscientific manner that all party activists feel they are entitled to assume after a hard day’s work, I thought I could detect a great difference between the London perspective and that outside.
In London, wicked and cosmopolitan city though it is, we make a moral crusade out of everything. Politics is a matter of principles, rights, ideals. Feelings run high and language is in a perpetual state of hyperbole: only those with a huge capacity for outrage (or an actor’s facility in simulating it) can stand the pace. There is a thick layer of hypocrisy in this: self-interest parading itself as social concern – whether for the poor widowed ratepayer, the disadvantaged council tenant or the victimized defender of free speech. London politics, for all its ugliness, pretends to be pure.
In the clearer light of the Welsh valleys there seemed to be a more realistic acknowledgement that politics is about competing interests, and that what is needed in political leaders is an ability to strike the balance fairly and get acceptance for it. The people I spoke to were ready to identify themselves by their interest group – farmer, health worker, small hotelier – and admit how that might affect their vote; but then they would stand back from that position and discuss in a more judicious and philosophical way what might be best for the country. The conversations were warmer in personal contact, cooler in political assessment, than one finds in city voters.
I have no cleverly calculated prediction of this election result. ‘Too close to call’ seems to be the pollsters’ verdict. (My canvass cards looked pretty healthy, but that is only a fragment of a large and diverse constituency). I can say, though, that I came back more cheerful than I have been for weeks; somehow restored to sanity.