Three Days, Three Party Leaders
A whirlwind tour of the British election campaign.
In London last week for a hack's holiday, I was asked several times: Do Americans care about the British election? The truthful answer is no, we don't, mainly because we haven't developed a relationship with any of the candidates. Unlike the Blair-Clinton years, there is no fraternal bond between New Labor and the Democrats. Unlike the Blair-Bush years, there's no prayerful union between prime minister and president.
What's more, it's difficult to argue that America should care who wins. The range of policies proposed by the three parties is surprisingly narrow, and what differences exist have few implications for the United States. It might give pause in Washington that in the debates Nick Clegg failed to respond to Gordon Brown's charge of anti-Americanism, but no one has yet registered a meaningful threat to the special relationship.
Nonetheless, the British election compels American attention, for two reasons. The first is simply as sport. However small the stakes for us, this has turned into a fine drama, with an uncertain outcome on May 6 and the uncharted possibility of a hung Parliament thereafter. The second is what we have to learn from the way elections are still conducted in Britain. Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.
By contrast, Britain's feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.
Before arriving, I was hot for a glimpse of the candidate who has learned the most from watching our politics. At the level of style, Nick Clegg and Barack Obama have a good deal in common: a natural ease, a facility with language, and an unapologetic intellectualism. But Obama would never dare acknowledge weeping while listening to Schubert or reading Waiting for Godot a hundred times. I was just about won over when Clegg declared, in response to a question about the pope in the second debate, "I'm not a man of faith—but my wife is." No American presidential candidate would ever admit either atheism or spiritual differences with his wife.
I finally lay eyes on Clegg when he arrives to speak at South Birmingham College, the day after Gordon Brown's encounter with Gillian Duffy. At the end of a docile question-and-answer period, a 26-year-old Asian woman named Maya Black asks him what he will do for young people who can't find jobs after going through training programs. "Maya, of course you're right," Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he's already said in his speech about apprenticeships helping to develop work habits and prevent young people from becoming demoralized while sitting at home and sending out hundreds of résumés.
Black, who is working to qualify for paramedic training at the college, isn't having any of it. She says that working without the possibility of a real job is just as demoralizing as staying at home. Clegg, quite reasonably, asks her what she thinks would work better.
"You shouldn't be asking me that—I'm asking you," she responds.
Clegg patiently tries to bring her around, and on his way out of the room he apologizes to her privately for not doing a better job of answering her question, but to little avail. After the event, she is swarmed by the press, which glimpses the potential for another angry-voter moment. Black enjoys the impromptu stage, steadily escalating her outrage at Clegg's effrontery in asking what she thought.
I thought Clegg handled a tough customer well. But he didn't seem to have it in him to go deeper into the issues around youth unemployment or the others he raised that day. I was disappointed that he didn't seem more interested in social policy. The Lib Dem manifesto is a fine thematic piece, for my money the most thoughtful of the three, and Clegg clearly has done some hard thinking about how to extend "fairness" without further expanding an overgrown state. But he seems rather less interested in the mundane details of social programs. It is telling that he has largely avoided the topic of welfare reform, leaving it to the Conservatives.
Clegg has nothing in common with Ross Perot, the third-party candidate who shook up American politics in 1992, but he is reminiscent of the John Anderson phenomenon. After a brilliant performance in a Republican primary debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Anderson created a boomlet running as an independent, briefly polling in the high 20s. Anderson's appeal was his greater honesty about the country's problems, and the chattering class swooned for him. But he wore on voters over time, and by Election Day, the air had completely left his bubble.
Photographs of: Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images; David Cameron by Jamie Wiseman—WPA Pool/Getty Images; Gordon Brown by David Crump—WPA Pool/Getty Images.