Essays: Unsubtle signals |
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Unsubtle signals

THE recent death of the great psephologist Bob McKenzie left a sad gap in the Beeb’s coverage of the Crosby by-election on Newsnight (BBC2). In two hours of political analysis there were none of Bob’s beloved hand-signals.

Instead, the hand-signals came from anchor-man John Tusa and computer operator Peter Snow. But the whole point of Bob McKenzie’s hand-signals was that they were precisely illustrative, so that if you stuck your fingers in your ears — which during Bob’s more excitable moments you could be excused for doing — it was still clear what he was talking about.

If Bob wiggled the index finger of each hand in a spiral and brought them slowly together, it meant that the two main parties were converging on the major issues. If he bunched his right hand into a fist, opened it, tilted it vertically and moved it slowly sideways across the screen, it meant that the percentage swing would probably continue throughout what he called the Battleground. Bob, although much smarter than President Ford, fell into the same linguistic sub-group. (When Ford talked about armaments he made a little gun with his thumb and forefinger, and when he talked about armaments increasing throughout the world he drew a circle in the air.)

John and Peter have inherited Bob’s impulse to make hand-signals, but with them the old realism has declined into abstraction, in keeping with the tendency of any art form to approach decadence through technical advance. As we waited for the declaration, John helped pass the time by gravely mixing metaphors about the by-election being an assault course to determine the temperature. Was the SDP’s popularity a flash in the pan? He illustrated ‘flash in the pan’ by holding his hands near each other and moving them vaguely outwards. With Bob, one hand would have been a pan and the other a dramatically ascending puff of smoke.

Sitting at his computer terminal, Peter Snow said that if Labour lost its deposit the result would be one that we could perhaps ‘slightly discount,’ since with Labour in a hopeless position the vote would be squeezed. For ‘squeezed’ Peter made a hand-signal as broadly and indeterminately significant as a green sunrise by Rothko. But the computer drew gripping high-tech pictures of hexagonal columns. These columns were based on poll projections, rather than the not-yet-forthcoming actual facts, but they were still very impressive. The SDP column was up there like Trajan’s tribute to himself. The Tory column was less vertiginous but still had the proportions of the national headquarters of a reasonably prosperous bank. The Labour column looked like a poker chip, or perhaps, at a generous estimate, a Wimpy. Peter explained that Michael Foot’s popularity was ‘lower than that of any Opposition leader since polling began.’ To illustrate this, Bob would probably have drawn a grass-hopper in the air and pointed to its knee, but Peter just sat there tapping his keys.

Apart from the hand-signals, Bob McKenzie combined a first-class analytical brain with the rare gift of being able to question politicians closely while not sounding aggressive. He was aggressive, but he didn’t sound it. Vincent Hanna, ‘Newsnight’s’ inquisitor at large, sounds so aggressive that you start sympathising with the poor harried politicos, even when they are being evasive. Vincent achieved the difficult feat of making Eric Heffer sound hard-done-by. Eric was trying to explain that the Labour voters hadn’t deserted, they were merely voting tactically in order to get the Tory out. That this argument was the product of wishful thinking would have been patent if Vincent hadn’t interrupted it with such vigour and so often. But at least Vincent doesn’t make hand signals. With one hand holding a microphone and the other grasping the lapel of his opponent, there is nothing left mobile except his mouth.

Studio guests were Leon Brittan (Tory), Gerald Kaufman (Labour) and Bill Rodgers (SDP). Leon fought his corner with some skill for a man who has trouble keeping his eyebrows on his forehead. Explaining that such a brilliant government was bound to suffer a mid-electoral dip in popularity even though its tough policies were already on the point of ushering in a new age of recovery, Leon sat relaxed while his eyebrows took off like a pair of jet fighters scrambling for a dawn interception. Also his baldy hairstyle presented a bit of a credibility problem, since no matter how long you grow the hair at the back of your head and no matter how carefully you arrange it over the depilated cranium, the television lights penetrate the screen and bounce of the glabrous dome beneath.

But if Leon had been wearing a tutu and holding a wand he would still have been less implausible than Gerald Kaufman, who said that if Labour lost now if would be because its faithful voters wanted it to win later. ‘What the electorate is telling us is that we should do something about it so that they can turn back to us.’ With the air of a horse already home and hosed, Bill Rodgers suavely insisted that the SDP was not a media party and that it did indeed have policies. He had only just started explaining what these were when John cut him short and switched the scene to Crosby.

As if to emphasise her status as a media darling, Mrs Williams was discovered pushing her face into the camera, no doubt as a joke. Actually the idea, on which Leon and Gerald seemed agreed, that Shirley Williams had an exceptionally powerful personal appeal was of a piece with the large idea that the SDP is a media party. With at least two albatrosses around her neck — education and Grunwick — she had, on the personal level, at least as much going against her as for her. Her overwhelming asset was membership of the Liberal-SDP alliance. Only an expert could fail to see that the alliance would have won Crosby even if it had fielded Barbara Woodhouse. Supposedly short of policies, the alliance has the only policy that currently matters — the policy of not having the policies of Labour or the Conservatives.

Her victory having been announced, Mrs Williams spoke of ‘an idea that has found its time.’ Roy Jenkins, who first had the idea and explained it in his Dimbleby lecture on television, fought off Vincent’s suggestion that he might be envious. ‘Twemendous wesult ... forms part of a pattern ... Cwoydon ... Cwosby ... bwoken thwough ... acwawse the nation.’ Tuning in from Olympus, David Steel patiently explained to John that for the Liberal candidate to stand down was in his party’s long term interest.

The alliance plainly has at least three Prime Ministers to choose from; even more plainly the will of the country is behind them like a tide; and most plainly of all the whole thing is happening precisely because what they stand for can’t be summed up as anything else except general intelligence. The image faded on Peter at his keyboard, providing a ‘detailed breakdown’ of the result. Somewhere out there in the sleepless night Mrs Thatcher and Michael Foot must have been having detailed breakdowns of their own. Further away still, the ghost of Robert McKenzie was describing with his rotating left forearm an imaginary tunnel, at one end of which he was rapidly opening and closing his right hand, to indicate a light.

The Observer, 29th November 1981
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]