I’ve been thinking about the general elections of my lifetime:
1970, Feb 1974, Oct 1974 I was too young to take in what was going on. (Also for the first 1974 election we were living abroad, a pattern which for me anyway was to become recurrent.)
1979 was during my first year at Rathmore Grammar School. I remember the girls in my class saying they hoped Mrs Thatcher would win because she was a woman. I had (and still have) a certain affection for Callaghan. Little did any of us know…
By 1983 I’d started to get seriously interested in politics, plus the election was during my O-levels and I think in a quiet inter-exam period. I stayed up all night, urging on the SDLP/Liberal Alliance, who of course did very well in terms of votes (quite possibly better than the Lib Dems will do today) but got a miserable tally of seats, their two actual gains being (if I remember right) Paddy Ashdown in Yeovil and Charles Kennedy in the far north of Scotland. In Northern Ireland all the seats were drastically redrawn, so lots of new results.
In 1987 I was a first-year undergraduate at Cambridge and proudly cast my first ever vote for Shirley Williams, standing in her last election for the SDP. She came a rather more distant second than I had hoped. I watched the results come in immediately after the Fisher Society’s annual dinner, in the Catholic Chaplaincy, where most of my fellow watchers were, like Father Chris Jenkins the chaplain, celebrating rather than ruing the result.
The day of the 1992 election I was in Germany with Anne, attending an old friend’s wedding. I’d only recently moved back to Belfast and fell between two stools of the registration process (which still happens). We listened to the results coming in on the radio, and groaned as Major’s inexplicable victory became clear. Though we cheered for Chris Patten’s defeat, something I’m slightly ashamed of now I’ve got to know him.
My political activity peaked between 1993 and 1996, so just at the wrong moment. At the time I moved to Bosnia, I had already been selected as the Alliance Party’s candidate for the 1997 election in North Belfast, though of course I had to pull out; but it did mean that this rather embarrassing publicity shot of me in front of a Big Ben backdrop was on my files, and indeed served as my standard photo for far too many years… (Lord Holme of Cheltenham, on seeing it, snorted “Surely you could have used a photograph taken since your fourteenth birthday???”)
On the day of the election itself I was in Graz, Austria, buying furniture for our office in Bosnia. Anne was still (heavily pregnant) in Belfast, watching the results roll in with a friend. Even in Austria, CNN and Sky News were available so I was able to follow what was going on – the extraordinary thing was not just the huge scale of the Labour victory, but also the Lib Dems winning more seats, despite the lower vote. And then I woke up in the morning with this odd memory of a dream that Anne had phoned me in the very small hours to tell me that my sometime vague acquaintance from student politics, Stephen Twigg, had defeated leading Conservative Michael Portillo. Impossible, I thought, and went in search of a coffee…
By 2001, thanks to my website, I’d become a small-time pundit, and the Belfast Telegraph, God bless ’em, commissioned a series of articles about marginal seats that I wrote. I was in Brussels for the day of the election itself (and oddly enough bumped into my former party leader, John Alderdice, at a reception that evening), and was then flown to Belfast early the next morning to do live commentary on the Northern Ireland seats as they came in for RTÉ, on a panel chaired by Rodney Rice with Duncan Morrow and Margaret O’Callaghan as my co-discussants. The election results, of course, were more dramatic than expected with seven seats out of 18 changing hands; we were also worked less hard than we might have been, as the referendum in the Republic on the Nice Treaty the previous day, being counted at the same time, delivered an unanticipated “No” vote. Still, they kept us there from midday until 8 pm with no food and only tea and biscuits to keep us going, and live broadcasting – even if you’re there as the expert to keep the presenter right, rather than the target of his grilling – is pretty tiring, so we were glad to get out at the end.
And here I am again in 2005, suddenly realising that the only vote I ever cast in a general election was back in 1987!