Up early, and out. I do some telephoning for my local candidate, asking people if they needed help getting to the polling station. I hate ringing up strangers and have to put on a very special low, grown-up voice to brush through it. It goes against everything that it means to be British. I think: I shall never, ever again be brusque with a cold-caller. (I have been known to do a horrid sort of passive aggression, sounding polite, but in fact being as mean as Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, at her most waspish. I am not proud of myself for this and resolve to stop it at once.)
I go to HorseBack and do my work there. It’s a small course this week, only four veterans, all of them dealing with a variety of mental and physical challenges. I like the small courses because I can get to know the men and women a bit, and have time to listen to their stories, so I can feel their triumphs as if they were my own. One veteran, who served as a nurse, was really properly frightened of the whole idea of horses, but today she screwed her courage to the sticking place and rode out on a sweet-natured bay Quarter Horse mare under the wide Scottish sky.
I’m so used to horses being home to me that I find it quite hard to put myself in the shoes of someone for whom they are completely alien. I realise how hard and strange it must be, to get up for the first time on a half-ton flight animal, and not know where to put your hands or your legs or how the steering works. And then they start to get it, and they feel the movement of the horse under them, and they ask the good question and get the good answer, and that is when the smiles break out like beacons.
I edit 9,000 words of book and try to think about the shape of the thing. There is a new scene I have to write and I can’t quite work out where to fit it in. Whenever I am alone, driving in the car, I run through the scene in my head, putting myself in as the main protagonist, trying to see what she sees, feel what she feels. I have to know her like I know myself.
I roast some beef, for strength. I need the iron. There shall be beef sandwiches for the next two days, because I’ll be too tired to cook after the election. I listen to the news on Radio Four and miss the political stuff. The BBC is not allowed to broadcast anything political until the polls close. It’s slightly absurd, but it’s rather honourable too. This is the quiet day which belongs to the voters. All the pundits and commentators and professors and psephological experts fall silent, as the ordinary people who are affected by the daily actions of government come out into the light to make their own decisions.
I love voting. It stitches me into history, into my community, into the social contract of my country. I understand well the arguments against; I know the logic of the spoiled ballot or the furious abstention. I know that first past the post means that, in some places, there is no hope for your chosen party. My own vote will almost certainly not win. But it will be counted. I choose to vote because of the women of Saudi Arabia, because of the Pankhursts, because of poor, deluded Emily Davison, because as recently as 1928 females in this country were not allowed to vote, presumably because the effort would cause their tiny pink lady brains to explode and make a mess.
I brandish my precious card. There was a horrible moment a few days ago when I got a letter saying my identity could not be confirmed by any government data base. This led to a mild existential crisis, when I felt as if I had been designated a non-person. The presiding officer looks down at her list. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘There you are.’ I smile all over my face. ‘I exist,’ I say, rather too loudly, joyful with reality. Two or three good voters give me a bit of a look.
I go into the booth, with its little stumpy pencil on a string. I read through all the candidates. I make sure I have them all right. I put in my cross, for an estimable gentleman who has done a lot for his community. I pause, taking in the moment.
All parties have their flaws, and all politicians are prone to frailties and foibles. Some of them are dull and some of them are idiots. Some of them are brilliant and some of them are mavericks and some of them just keep their heads down and get on with the job. Some adore their constituency work and make a real difference in the lives of real people; some climb the greasy pole. Some are articulate and some are taciturn. Some trim; some stick to their principles. Very much like the electorate, in fact. I gave up tribalism years ago, and now choose the candidate I think will do her or his very best. (I vote locally, but I also read all the national manifestos and act on the one I agree with the most.) I don’t expect miracles and I don’t expect all problems to be solved and I don’t expect revolutions. I have no sense of entitlement. Everyone is not going to get a pony. I hope, Whiggishly, that the cracks might be filled and progress might be made and mistakes might be rectified. I no longer have the soaring ideology of youth, but the pragmatic, slightly battered hope of age.
I think of Churchill, who said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. He also said, after he won the war and was promptly cast from office by a flintily unsentimental British public: ‘They have a perfect right to kick me out. That is democracy.
I go out into the quiet village hall, with its polished wooden floor and its high roof. The light is streaming in through the windows. I fold my ballot paper and put it into the scratched black box. I smile blindingly at the presiding officer. I say: ‘Hurrah for democracy.’ She looks faintly surprised. I can almost see her thinking: ‘Just humour the old girl. We get all sorts in here.’
I’d love to go in and do it all over again. Vote early, vote often. No, no, I think, we are not in Tammany Hall. It’s a quiet village in the north-east of Scotland. It’s a vast constituency, running from the high hills at Braemar to the low port of Stonehaven, which was established as a fishing village in the Iron Age. Tomorrow, when the country wakes up to a new order, or a constitutional crisis, or a frenzy of horse-trading, these mountains and fields will still be here, the lambs will still be skipping over the green grass, the majestic Aberdeen Angus will still be standing tall and stately in their meadows. But today is election day, and it means something to me.