There’s no doubt that, in no particular order, the BBC, the SNP and the Tories won the election, just as, in no particular order, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Kippers lost the election. If any one moment defined election night, it was Mouldy Auld Sporran asking a craggy slit-eyed Pantsdown shortly after ten pm about the BBC’s newly announced exit poll which predicted a Tory win. Pants piled on more crags, tightened the slits and went Hatsdown: if the poll was right, Pants cragged, he’d eat his hat. At least one viewer was left wondering for a moment whether Pants’ appearance was the consequence of a life spent digesting hats. Mouldy declined to offer to eat his sporran if the exit poll was wrong. Pants appeared to nod off, his eyes the natal clefts of two hippos reclining back to back. In the bowels of the building, a prop hand searched for a digestible hat.
A suitable hat having been found, the final result, when it came, posed two questions. The first was why had the pre-election polls been so consistently wrong. The second and related question was where had the slim Tory majority come from. Co-opted election hacks, who had spent the last six weeks quacking in the wrong duck pond, were suddenly awash with new theories on how the Tories had so confounded expectations. Chief among these was the notion of the closet Tory voter, a shadowy figure who stayed hidden behind the net curtains until the big day. Another popular theory, as the Lib Dem vote dropped like a stone down a mineshaft, was that previous Lib Dem voters had not forgiven the party’s tuition fee turnabout. On the other hand, the Scots turning like lemmings to the SNP was theorised to have more to do with Labour losses than Tory gains. Tories themselves naturally enough put their gains down to the success of their campaign. Quite how the lack-lustre campaign, of which the most memorable moment was a pumped up David Cameron bobbing about like an over-inflated condom on a stick, somehow managed to pump up the Tory vote is anyone’s guess.
Another possible explanation, which Dr No is inclined to lean towards – only lean, because he wouldn’t presume to know, is that in their own ways, both the pre-election polls and the election result are right. No one can deny the result itself: it is what it is, and the Tories won. But what if the pre-election pollsters really did manage to achieve representative sampling, such that their remarkably consistent results are a reflection of the will of all the people, while the election, though a vastly larger sample – millions as opposed to thousands, and this year with better turnout – almost two out of three voters, was a biased sample, insofar as the result was based on those who chose to vote, who may not be representative of all voters? Such a case – self-selection – is a particular case of a more general form of bias known as selection bias, in which an antecedent condition selects, and so over-represents, a category – in this case Tory voters – in a sample.
Be that as it may, pragmatists will correctly say a result is a result, as it indeed it is. The hard of nose will say, reasonably enough, that if you don’t turn up, you don’t count. But that risks missing a point: that just because you haven’t been counted, it doesn’t mean you don’t count. The people, as opposed to the electorate, may have a different mood.
The Tories did win, but only by a small majority. Like the balloons left flying from a gate post after the party is over, small majorities tend to go down over time. Sometimes, more dramatically, they just go pop. And all the while, the victory balloons may not represent the will of the people so much as the ephemeral air of a self-selected sample. Just as from time to time we might counsel each other: be careful what you vote for, so to might we now presume to counsel the new Tory government: be careful what you say you have a mandate for.
There are early signs that Mr Cameron recognises this, in his frequent talk of one nation. This is a broad mantle that must cover many shoulders. From pro-Europeans to the Regionalists, through the rich and the poor, to the well and the sick, for subjects with lead boots on their feet or a sliver spoon between their teeth, one nation means one nation. Dr No suspects Mr Cameron does get it, but is much surer saying that many Tories don’t get it. Mr Cameron’s first job may be to lead the country, but his second and no less important job is to pop some of the more livid blue balloons floating round his cabinet table. If he manages this, we can hope his government may stay grounded; if he fails, his government will fly away, only to come crashing down when the balloons go pop; and the damage done, not just to the government, but to the country, will be great.