It is a truth universally acknowledged that a political leader, when embroiled in a televised debate, will frequently resort to pious platitude. You know the sort of thing. A cornered contender will trill: “We have to remember that at the end of the day this election is all about…..the people!” Means nothing, costs nothing. If delivered with the requisite level of sincerity, it may even attract applause from the audience.

Mind you, there are exceptions to this rule. Joe Biden, the current leader of the free world, could have used a few vaguely coherent platitudes in his encounter with Donald Trump.

Still, let us stay this side of the ocean. In their head to head, both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer made fairly copious use of banality. My favourite was from Mr Sunak who sententiously informed the audience that “this election is about the future.”

Strictly, that is accurate in that we are choosing our MP and thus, indirectly, the next incumbent of 10 Downing Street. Future governance, in short. But, of course, the factors influencing our choice lie very definitely in the past. As Burns reminded us, we cannot see the future: we can only guess and fear.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden slug it outDonald Trump and Joe Biden slug it out (Image: free)

Meanwhile, the past is all around us. Rishi Sunak knows that. He wants to present us with an edited version. Skip the premiership of Liz Truss, he says. Obliterate all memories of Boris Johnson. Consider only his own relatively brief tenure. During which inflation has returned to target. Give him, he pleads, the chance to finish the job. It is in that sense that he points to the future.

By contrast, his rivals want to dwell upon the record of Conservative Prime Ministerial predecessors. Their talk is of Truss and the mini-budget, of Johnson and Partygate.

In Holyrood this week, John Swinney went back even further. He challenged Douglas Ross to acknowledge “the devastation wreaked on our country” by Margaret Thatcher. Answer, understandably, came there none.

Between the two contenders for PM, there is even a discourse about their own past. We feel we know Keir Starmer’s toolmaker father, he has cited him so often. Ditto the family Sunak. We hear of his parents’ business. We hear of his grandparents emigrating to the UK. We hear rather less about his present wealth.

Of course, Keir Starmer has a political past too. Remember that moment when he attempted to explain why, in the 2019 campaign, he had forecast that Jeremy Corbyn would make a great Prime Minister. Given that, just why had he derided the Conservative manifesto as “Corbyn style” – lacking fiscal rigour? It was, frankly, a source of innocent merriment in an otherwise tepid campaign.

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Now he had said what he needed to say at the time. Scarcely an advert for political frankness, but there we are. Given that past, Sir Keir has been notably cautious in his pronouncements. Spending pledges? Constrained. Tax rises? Behave yourself.

Offstage, the Institute for Fiscal Studies complains of a “conspiracy of silence” among major parties about the dismal state of our economy. Sir Keir can live with that, believing it has the edge on upsetting voters who are already anxious enough. Which is, of course, the past driving this entire election. Covid, the cost of living, global turmoil. Seldom has a UK political contest been fought against a background of such popular disquiet.

One further past event is scarcely mentioned by the main UK players. For them, Brexit is the issue that dare not speak its name. However, it surfaces in two ways. John Swinney strove this week to build support on the notion that an independent Scotland could rejoin the EU. Might work to some extent – although I would question its immediate salience as an issue, in the face of those deeper anxieties.

But there is another Brexit aftermath. Nigel Farage, who energised the Leave campaign, is now posing a threat to Tory votes. Reform UK may not win many seats – but the Tories fear they could deprive them of victory in key constituencies, including contests against the SNP.

Other parties also have a past to contemplate. The Greens and the Bute House pact. The Liberal Democrats, still facing questions about their 2010 coalition with the Tories which resulted in university tuition fees in England. They say they have learned lessons.

And the SNP? They can scarcely do a Sunak and ask for an amnesty. Their problems are too raw, too recent. Instead, Mr Swinney openly acknowledges that his party and the government he now leads have been through “challenging” times. But he insists he has turned things around, that his party is now reunited, that his government is now focused firmly upon the concerns of the populace.

He faces a distinctive contest with the Scottish Tories who say they hope to put the SNP’s “obsession” with independence to bed. Mr Swinney argues that independence offers the answer to Brexit, austerity and the cost of living crisis, delivered by Westminster.


From looJohn Swinney hopes to restore faith in his governmentJohn Swinney hopes to restore faith in his government (Image: free) king back, let us look forward a little. What would represent a good night for these parties, after the votes are counted? For Labour, the keys to Downing Street seem all but assured. In Scotland, they dream of being the largest party again. Even winning a majority of our 57 constituencies.

As set out here last week, that would give them evident momentum – but also no hiding place if the economy continues to flatline. The Conservatives hope to win sufficient seats to maximise their status as the Opposition – and to minimise internal discontent. They hope to see off Reform UK. The Liberal Democrats hope for gains. Perhaps three or four seats beyond their notional two in Scotland as dictated by boundary changes.

Their UK aim? To replace the SNP as the third party in the Commons. The Greens want a creditable voting share. As for the SNP, they hope voters will heed their case that they can stand up best for Scottish interests. They hope to oust Scottish Tories, contain the Labour challenge – and so sustain the cause of independence.

Over to the voters. After all, this election is about the future.