Election campaigns tend to be scrappy affairs. How could they be anything other, as politicians push and shove their policies and values into our consciousness, seek to persuade us to vote for them and fight for power? At their best, election campaigns can see the battle of ideas clash and clang, great persuasive speeches can be made, real debate entered into, and, nowadays, snappy compelling social media shots can be fired onto our computers and literally into the palms of our hands.

The 2024 general election has certainly been scrappy. It is a consequential election campaign that has seen all too few of the great issues contested and has principally revolved around an all too narrow debate on the enervating issue of how much our taxes will go up by and how fast that will happen. This has not been a vintage campaign even though the outcome will, one way or the other, be historic.

Only two people are in contention to be the next Prime Minister and how each of them behaves, whether they find themselves the victor or the loser, will determine the tone in their respective parties and the country for years to come.

In 1979, Jim Callaghan congratulated Margaret Thatcher on her victory noting that, although he disagreed with her politics, hers was a considerable personal victory. She reciprocated by thanking him for his long public service.

In 1997, John Major congratulated Tony Blair on his victory and then departed for an afternoon’s cricket at the Oval. The first words the new Prime Minister uttered on the steps of No, 10, before he had even gone through the famous black door, were to thank the outgoing Prime Minister for his service.

When it came to Tony Blair’s time to depart the scene his successor, Gordon Brown, could not bring himself to say anything pleasant about his predecessor. Nor could he find it in himself to wish his successor, David Cameron, well. Brown entered and left Downing Street with a public gracelessness that served public discourse ill. Indeed, it fell to David Cameron in the Commons after Blair’s final Prime Minister’s Questions to lead all MPs in a standing ovation for the departing Prime Minister.

These things matter. Politeness, grace in defeat, and magnanimity in victory matter. Whatever the results may be over the next few hours, we will all look to see if both Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak can, in the end, muster the strength of character to treat each other with decency and respect at the moment of ultimate victory and loss.

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