In a country of 60 million people it isn't often that individuals can do very much that makes a lot of difference. But while I was doing something else today I was able to witness an extraordinary example of a handful of people having a real effect on events.
After the election of a parliament with no party with overall control, at time of writing the negotiations are going on between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories about forming a coalition. The arithmetic is such that there are only two realistic options. Either the Tories can try and run an administration on their own in the face of a house that they cannot be sure of controlling completely. Or they can come to an agreement with the Lib Dems to form a stable government. No other party has enough seats to be able to offer the Tories that. The combined Labour and Lid Dem MPs don't actually have enough seats to control the house.
So the Lib Dems are in a strong position, but not an invincible one. They were talking to the Tories last night, and were talking among themselves this afternoon. No doubt they have many calculations to make and many factors to take into account. One of the big issues is of course Proportional Representation. This has been close to the third party's heart for many years. But on the other hand, the Conservatives must be the least likely party on the planet to concede PR. Conservatives don't like change and do like tradition. And although first past the post doesn't work as well for them as it often has in the past, they are still huge beneficiaries of the status quo. All in all, they are going to be very very reluctant to meet the Lib Dems demands on this.
On the other hand, while it is not immediately obvious, the Lib Dems are also big winners from the first past the post system. Do what? Surely a party that gets a tiny haul of seats from a large share of the popular vote must be disadvantaged by the system. I think this is not in fact the case. Many many people cast a vote for the Lib Dems in despair of their true choice getting in. Tories in safe Labour seats and Labour supporters in Tory strongholds are the obvious examples. But anyone, Greens, anti-Europeans, the chronically discontented, all find the Lib Dems a handy stick with which to beat the two big parties. I think that a lot of the top Lib Dems are well aware of this and often pander to it by being studiously vague about their policies in a lot of their literature. The main plank on the one leaflet I received from the Lib Dems in the last election was to remind me that one of the big parties had no chance of winning in the seat I live in.
It is quite likely that under PR the Lib Dems might have a lot fewer votes and even fewer seats.
So I have a feeling that Nick Clegg probably has a side of him that would not be too disappointed if he didn't have to fight the next election on a proportional basis. On the other hand, he probably does believe in it at some level. I am not trying to make out that he is a particularly duplicitous person here. We are all human and we all find a lot of things where we have two minds. When we had heavy snow recently I genuinely did try to get to work, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn't pleased to have a day off when I could go to the park and watch kids play snowballs. So when I say that Nick Clegg might waver on PR I am just assuming he is a human like me.
So, if you were in his position how do you think this afternoon's events would affect you? You are in a meeting with your colleagues talking no doubt in some depth about strategy and tactics. You will have the logical and rational parts of your brain engaged and a lot of details to look at and mull over. In the middle of this, out of the blue and without warning, you are dragged out to address a crowd of enthusiastic and idealistic people. They are calling for you by name. You. And when you talk to them you are cheered to the rafters. This must engage and entirely different part of you. It is emotional and moving. Can you really let these people who have fixed all their hope on you down?
I don't' think politicians are immune to this sort of thing. Far from it. I think you would have to be made of lead not to be swayed by an event like that. We will never know for sure of course. Indeed Nick Clegg himself will probably never know. But I wonder, did that demonstration make all the difference between making a deal that was simply an elaborate smokescreen for his party interest or holding out for a change in the voting system that will genuinely make parliament a better representation of the will of the people. If so, then we should all be grateful to the thousand or so people who made a noise in Smith Square two hours ago.