By Ray Fleming

WHATEVER the result of yesterday's voting proves to be, there can be little doubt that the election campaign of the past month has been the liveliest for many years and may have reinvigorated British politics for some time to come. It is one of those ironic timings that it is almost exactly one year since the Daily Telegraph published the first of its listings of MPs expenses that were to hold the attention of an open-mouthed and disgusted electorate for several weeks and that in the end led both to the unprecedented departure of the Speaker of the House of Commons and to a disillusioned public's contempt for politics and all it stood for. Understandably, there were dire predictions that when the general election was due an angry electorate would make clear its dissatisfaction with all parties by a display of indifference and detachment -- “none of the above” would be what voters most wanted to put their cross against on the ballot if they had the chance.

It is too early to judge whether the turn-out yesterday was an improvement on the disappointing 60 per cent which voted at the last two elections -- the extensive use of postal voting this year will require some care in making this judgement. But all the usual visible measures of voter interest and motivation have suggested a keen interest even if the normal early commitment to a particular party has been less evident. There are three main factors which have reminded the public of their national duty and self-interest in taking the election seriously. The first, obviously, has been the unexpected effectiveness of the TV debates and the semblance they gave of three leaders who had thought deeply about the issues facing the nation and their solutions to the problems arising from them. The second was the emergence of a charismatic new figure in the person of Nick Clegg who seized the opportunity offered by the TV debates which he had been denied in the House of Commons since becoming his party's leader a year or so ago. Suddenly and surprisingly there was an alternative to the over-familiar figures of Gordon Brown and David Cameron -- and one that might well attract the interest of younger citizens who have previously thought politics an irrelevant bore. The third factor that has enlivened the election is the grave economic situation which Britain faces and the need for decisive action to remedy it.

After about twenty-five years during which British elections have offered voters the opportunity of choosing between an attractive array of expansionist policies, the situation has been totally reversed. The public knows that serious cuts will have to be made in public services and they have wanted to know from the three leaders the principles by which each would approach the difficult task of dismantling or limiting valued services and of rejecting the introduction of new services or policies which in normal times would be par for the electoral course. There has been criticism of the unwillingness of the three leaders to provide shopping lists of the services they would cut but to have done so could have put the elected government in a straitjacket which would hinder rather than help the nation's recovery.

There have been some negative features about the election just past but analysis of these can wait. For the moment it is sufficient to be grateful for the new lease of life which it appears to have given to the drama of the democratic process in Britain at a time when its actors, the elected Members of Parliament, seemed to have performed in such a way as to produce precisely the opposite result. In its preoccupation with the economy Britain's new government must not forget the nation's insistence on the need for early reform of Parliament and a fairer election system. To ignore these reforms would be a blow to democracy from which it might not recover a second time.