A whirlwind tour of the British election campaign.

A whirlwind tour of the British election campaign.

A whirlwind tour of the British election campaign.

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 3 2010 10:55 AM

Three Days, Three Party Leaders

A whirlwind tour of the British election campaign.

Nick Clegg. Click image to expand.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg 

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.

Jacob Weisberg Jacob Weisberg
Jacob Weisberg visited Britain to write about the election for the Guardian.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Is Clegg Britain's John Anderson or its Barack Obama? The kind of anti-politics that has brought him this far can easily dissolve into pabulum and cliché. Clegg's "they're both the same, I'm different" line was starting to wear on me by the third debate. Despite this, I will return home thinking that Clegg's commitment to change is far deeper than David Cameron's. Clegg has the advantage of not just arguing for much of the change he supports but also embodying it. With his Dutch mother, his Spanish wife, and his experience studying in Bruges and working as a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, he is a man of Britain's European future much in the way that Obama represents America's multiracial one.

David Cameron. Click image to expand.
David Cameron

I'd seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people. My favorite part of the Conservative manifesto is the page bragging that Brighton has the highest proportion of same-sex households in the United Kingdom and hosts a world-class gay-pride festival. You wouldn't find a comparable boast about Miami Beach in a Republican National Committee publication.

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On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron's focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as "The Image." He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package. He reminded me of a former Republican senator I once lunched with who could only talk about politics and looked at me with a blank stare when I asked him what he thought about an issue, as opposed to how it would "play."

Neither feeling was dispelled when I met up with Cameron in Derby the morning after the final debate. Unlike Clegg, who simply walks into a room and engages people in conversation, Cameron's appearances are staged, benefitting from the work of an advance team with an eye to how a camera will regard him. Press access to the candidate is limited, lest something unanticipated overshadow the message of the day.

Cameron strides into the school looking as buffed as a freshly washed car and providing a similar kind of short-term uplift. He speaks across the open entry hall from a balcony, creating a dramatic theater-in-the-round effect, with the uniformed pupils clustered below. Relaxed, fluent, and cogent, he takes the young people's very good questions seriously, while keeping their age in mind. It is hard not to be impressed by him, as the students clearly are. Under Cameron, the Conservatives have become a reasonable, centrist party with a number of appealing ideas around education and the reform of social services.

Yet with Cameron's Tories, ideas take second place to their marketing. The event is geared around his presentation of a contract with voters, which is printed out on a white board that Cameron signs with a flourish after his talk. Aside from being a rip-off of the Republican's 1994 Contract With America (also known as the Contract on America), this 16-point promise is a remarkably thin effort. The hard tasks, like cutting wasteful government spending, building a greener economy, and raising school standards are left vague. The specific ones, like cutting the number of MPs and reducing ministers' pay, seem too easy.

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Gordon Brown. Click image to expand.
Gordon Brown 

The only thing that prepared me for a Saturday in the North with Gordon Brown was reading Michael Lewis' The Big Short, which is about the people who made a fortune betting against the housing bubble. Lewis' characters are social misfits, and the best of them is Michael Burry, who attributes his social awkwardness to having lost the sight in one eye as the result of a childhood illness. As the book goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that Burry's difficulties making friends, his angry explosions, and his inability to deal with other people come from growing up with a glass eye. Eventually he discovers that his problems aren't to do with his eyesight all. He has Asperger's syndrome.

With Gordon Brown, you go through a similar progression. He lost the sight in his left eye playing rugby at the age of 16. His difficulty in presenting himself and relating to others seem at first to be the result of his physical disability. Close up, he looks even more like an unmade bed—shirttail flying, suit rumpled, tie creased, hair uncombed. Because his peripheral vision is poor, he is always turning his face away from the person he is speaking to and looking away simply to register what is going on around him.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch him move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees' lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I'm standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

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But after a while, eyesight seems less of a problem than his being a technocrat misplaced in a public role. Fatally to a politician, he does not take much pleasure in human contact. For him, a smile is a choice (often the wrong one), a laugh an effort, his whole attitude toward standing for election one of grim necessity. His body language says: I can't wait to be done talking to these people. His wife, never far from his side, is stoical and nearly silent.

At his main appearance later that day, at the Sunderland Glass Centre, an industrial museum, Brown addresses an audience of trade unionists and party stalwarts. Rallying the faithful, the people who will stand by him—this could be a poignant moment. Yet Brown reads them a boring message about cultural policy from a teleprompter.

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester's sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown's speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

Outside, I strike up a conversation with Maureen Lenehan, a local Labor official, and some of her friends. It turns out they live in Tony Blair's old constituency and have met the Bushes, Clintons, and the Blairs. Somewhat incongruously, they have kind words for all of them, but tell me I should be ashamed of myself for representing the Guardian (I am writing a Yank's-eye view of the election for that paper), which had endorsed the Liberal Democrats on Friday. I ask Lenehan how she ranks Brown among the talented politicians she has met.

"It's like when you go to see a house, and you don't like the décor," she says. "You've got to see beyond that."

At the last stop on his schedule, Brown was beset by Conservative protesters, but I did not see them. He finished his meet-and-greet and left for home before the press bus trailing him arrived.

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If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country's post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Even if this can be done without putting the economy back into a stall, which will be a challenge, it means preparing Britain for a return to austerity. The next several years are going to be a story of cuts in services, reductions in benefits, and battles with labor unions. It may not be like the Blitz or the winter of discontent, but it will probably have something of that spirit. Britain is going to get a smaller state, whichever party leads it. It is gong to be an ugly process, whether led by a grim Scot, a shiny Etonian, or Brussels man.

The odds of any party or leader succeeding in this task, let alone remaining popular while carrying it out, seem vanishingly small. In short, I'm not sure why anyone would want the job of prime minister for the next several years. But evidently, a few people still do.

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