Tick tock goes the clock, in politics as in life. And there are few more potent political slogans than “Time for a Change.”
In the US, they reckon eight years is quite long enough for someone to be living in the White House. Even in Nigeria, hardly the exemplar of effective democratic rule, they put an eight-year limit on the presidency. So Tony Blair’s 10 years, exceeded only by Margaret Thatcher in modern British history, is pretty good going.
The late Hugo Young of The Guardian wrote shortly before he died in 2003: “Third terms slide towards inanition, or degrade into corruption and chaos … Three-term leaders outlive their usefulness, and Tony Blair is no different.”
Here in Scotland, where I’ve been for the past couple of days, Labour have been the dominant political force for the past 50 years. They’ve headed the governing coalition in the Scottish parliament since it was established eight years ago. And when I spoke to voters at polling stations in Glasgow yesterday, the most common message from those who said they were deserting Labour was that they were disappointed with how little had been achieved.
All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell used to say. And perhaps all governments eventually disappoint their supporters too. It is, after all, the whole point of multi-party democracy that we get a chance every few years to throw one lot out and give another lot a go.
By this time next week, Mr Blair will have announced his resignation. By the end of June, we’ll have a new Prime Minister. When the Tories pulled the same trick back in 1990, when John Major took over from Mrs Thatcher, he was enough of a new face to persuade voters to give his party one more chance. Against expectations, they won again in 1992.
But Gordon Brown is no John Major. For all his undoubted qualities, no one could claim that he will be a “new face” in Downing Street. So the next election will see the “tick tock” principle put to the test: time for a change, or stick with what we know?
As for Scotland, I’m writing this mid-morning on Friday, on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It’s more than 12 hours since the polls closed, and we still don’t have a clue who’ll be forming the next government in Edinburgh. But I’m prepared to make a prediction: even if the SNP do lead the next Scottish administration, a decision on independence for Scotland is still a long way off.
And I hope you’ve noticed how – despite all the confusion in Scotland about spoilt ballots, malfunctioning counting machines and impending legal challenges – I have resisted any temptation to draw parallels between the process here and what I observed two weeks ago in Nigeria.
On Monday, I’ll be in Paris to report on the outcome of the French presidential election. It’ll also be eight weeks since our colleague Alan Johnston was abducted in Gaza: despite everyone’s best efforts, he’s still being held captive. Please continue to keep him in your thoughts.