Like all good Anglophile nerds, Your Correspondent is spending a shameful and useless amount of time monitoring this Thursday’s General Election in Ye Olde Englande (Featuring Scotlande, Walese and Northern Irelande). Exactly what good it does to follow another nation’s election, I don’t know; neither do I know why British elections are inherently more interesting than, say, Spanish elections or Brazilian elections. They just are. I reckon it must be some kind of vestigial American desire to click heels and doff cap whenever anything with a crown perched on its head wheels past. And, of course, the grass is ever greener. For those of us who endure two-year-long electoral ordeals, involving such tortures as the Iowa caucusing system, months of pondering how Appalachian Democratic primary voters will break, and an interminable delay between Election and Inauguration, there’s a refreshing brutality to a system in which a campaign lasts three weeks and the transition of power occurs about 15 minutes after polls close.
In any case, I’m following it. I just plowed through The Guardian‘s endorsement of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats—which, incidentally, could serve as a model for any journalist who has to grind out an endorsement piece in the future. The Lib Dems have thrown the campaign into a tither with their unexpectedly strong showing far, but probably can’t win all that many seats even if they poll well. The incumbent Labour Party looks set to plummet to third place in the popular vote but will probably hang on to (at least) the second-largest Parliament bloc. Gordon Brown could cling to the premiership under a variety of scenarios.
Then there are the Conservatives, led by mediagenic semi-toff David Cameron, who lead the polls but face any number of fates. The Tories could win a majority; could form a minority government; could form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats; or could come in first in both votes and seats and still get totally (one might say royally) screwed if Labour and the Liberals patch up their generations-old feud and form a broad centre-left government. There’s a very real possibility that the UK will hold more than one national election this year.
It’s all kind of retro: Tories and Whigs! The (nominal) Socialists pushed to third place! British politics hasn’t looked like that in about 90 years, as far as I can tell. To an American onlooker—or this one, anyway—one striking characteristic of this pile-up is the odd sensation of looking at an election and seeing not one, not two but three parties that actually have something to offer.
A youth mis-spent listening to imported punk-rock albums leaves me with an instinctual distrust of the Conservative Party. And yet I am fascinated by some of the Tory undercurrents brought to light by Cameron, who has done at least some modernizing and retrofitting of a party that obviously contains many different traditions and tendencies. Cameron supports same-sex unions (and maybe even marriage); makes positive noise about the environment and climate change; and has given aid and comfort to “Red Tory” radicals like Philip Blond, who propose a conservative politics that stands against both the overbearing State and the over-powerful Market. I wouldn’t vote for the Tories, but the difference between Britain’s Conservatives and America’s “conservatives” amazes me.
The current Republican Party seems to go out of its way to identify large segments of the electorate that it wants nothing to do with. If you are an environmentalist (or just someone who believes that climate change is a problem), gay or lesbian, Hispanic or an urban dweller of just about any color or creed—the Republican Party emphatically does not want your vote. At least Cameron and his tribe are trying, or striving to seem to try, which in politics often amounts to the same thing.
From here, Labour looks like a disaster that needs to be kicked out of power so it can remember what it’s for. Tony Blair and Brown assiduously weeded out the party’s socialist roots—and, not coincidentally, led back to power for the first time in a generation. But now, Labour itself has ruled the country for a generation, through good times and bad, through a questionable imperial war or two and an economic calamity that it both helped bring on (through deregulation) and confront (through Brown and Darling’s widely praised management of the ’08-’09 nadir). It has federalized and updated the Union’s constitutional structure but seems unwilling to go all the way. It has clamped down on civil liberties and hung on to Number 10 for three years after an election-free transfer of power.
To me, all this would seem to put Labour up against an existential question: Why does this party exist? In ordinary times, being the Moderate Multicultural Party for Decently Run Public Services (With Added War!) might be enough. But to judge by the current polls, it’s not. A few years in Opposition, with a different leader, might be just what Labour needs right now to remember what it’s all about. Still, this still seems like the most natural choice to govern a modern, changing, increasingly diverse nation that likes its health care free. Labour’s biggest problem is that it’s been doing just that for too long.
The Liberal Democrats are difficult for an American to get ‘hold of. What are they? The Small-Government Left? Sort of. Let’s just say they are an eclectic mix. Europhile. Semi-socialist, sometimes. (The party incorporates the former Social Democrats, who split from Labour in the ’80s and brought their red neckties.) Peacenik-y. Green. Pro-civil liberties. Obsessed with political reform for both principled and entirely selfish reasons. The Lib Dems are, it would seem, the party of the college professors. If that doesn’t seem excessively exciting, it’s at least hard to imagine them doing much harm if they were involved in running the country one way or another.
The Brits seem fairly jaundiced about politics these days, and in their ever-so-British way they will tear each one of these leaders down in turn, starting with Brown. (How do Cameron and Clegg look across the debate stage at the shambling, saggy-faced wreck this once-proud Scottish firebrand has become and say, “I want that man’s job!”?) As they go to the polls, our cousins should take a moment and be thankful: at least they have a real choice.