As in: Other People’s Politics? Over the past week or so, Your Correspondent has spent an embarrassing and productivity-sapping amount of time following Britain’s full-scale political meltdown. Nothing in American politics can quite match the cliffhanger quality of watching a parliamentary government unravel. With no set election cycle, no written Constitution and an all-powerful Executive nonetheless vulnerable to Cabinet coups and skullduggery among backbench MPs, the UK’s system creates agonizing (and highly entertaining) suspense whenever a Prime Minister verges on self-destruction.
Gordon Brown’s brush with political death (Britain also favors metaphorical analysis of politicians’ careers so extreme and intense that it barely remains, y’know, metaphorical) in recent days offered just about everything one could ask for in the way of melodrama. Check it out:
TRAGIC CENTRAL CHARACTER: The melancholic, slow-moving Brown, a man who wears the sorrows of the world on his baggy face. As Krugman points out today, this old Socialist long ago made a fateful pact with the deregulators, globalizers and glib “modernizers” who turned the Labour Party from unelectable Red to highly marketable puce. After more than a decade spent glowering in Tony Blair’s wispy shadow, Brown finally inherited the top job two years ago—only to find it came with an unadvertised “Reap the Whirlwind” feature.
BIZARRE SUPPORTING CAST: From an American perspective, Brown’s Cabinet looks like a bunch of pygmy careerists and small-time operators suddenly alert to the smell of blood on the air. Parsing the British press coverage of the mass exodus that nearly took Brown out last week, the same consensus seems to hold over there. Not that the average American knows much about Brit politics anyway, but any sudden change in occupant at 10 Downing Street would occasion a serious “Who the hell is this guy?” moment on this side of the Atlantic. Among its many strange nuances, the British system makes it possible to start with a soul-erasing job title like “Secretary of State for Work and Pensions” and end up, five years later, in command of one the world’s more potent militaries—without ever winning a national election, let alone attaining any kind of global profile.
OMINOUS BACKDROP: The great British public is really, really pissed off, and doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with its rage. Labour took a serious thrashing in last week’s local elections, but the opposition Conservatives did not hit the vote totals they might have expected. More troubling by far, the low-turnout European Parliament election will send a couple members of the neo-fascist British National Party to Strasbourg—which, admittedly, is a pretty safe place to stash them. Meanwhile, Conservative leader David Cameron, the genteel heir apparent, strikes a progressive and friendly pose. As I’ve written elsewhere, some genuinely interesting thinkers are on the move within the Tory Party. Still, Cameron is in the process of maneuvering the Conservatives into a European alliance with a bunch of nut-jobby Eastern Europeans. In view of the general parallel tendencies of American and British politics, such developments give one…pause.
INNUMERABLE PLOT TWISTS: As the disastrous local and Euro election results rolled in—Labour finished behind the United Kingdom Independence Party in the European poll; imagine the Democrats losing to the Constitution Party—it looked like Brown wouldn’t last the week. With erstwhile loyalists in the old Labour heartland turning out for semi-reformed Hitler enthusiasts, a change in standard-bearer for the nominally Left governing party might seem in order. Today, however, turneth the worm: Brown gave “the speech of his life” to a closed-door meeting of Labour MPs, seemingly short-circuiting any move to evict him. So now the man staggers on, with a general election required within the year and no immediately detectable plan.
Beyond the nerdish interest (or, eh, lack thereof I suppose), Brown’s drawn-out suffering and the imminent annihilation of his party should put a chill in the hearts of liberal-ish Americans. The rightward drift of disaffected Labourites in Britain’s old industrial areas is no surprise: when the economy goes sour and the democratic Left offers no credible alternative, working-class voters often flock to populist goons. If the BNP’s modicum of success is creepy enough, imagine an effective demagogue on the loose in the economically devastated Midwest three years from now, trading on anti-government, anti-trade and anti-immigrant sentiment. It Can Happen Here.