The British Election

The British Election

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 29 1997 3:30 AM

The British Election

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April 24

Every morning the parties stage press conferences within walking distance of each other. And every morning they demonstrate that a politician does not need to avoid the press to fool the public. In just the past five weeks, for instance, Tony Blair has changed his views on several issues, to prevent the Tories from moving their agenda away from his. Today, "Labour's five core promises" painted on the wall behind Blair have become "Labour's six core promises." It reminds me vaguely of a Monty Python skit. ("Do I hear seven?" I can hear Michael Palin shouting from the auction block. "Anyone for seven core promises?") The new Labor promise is also a new Tory promise: no single European currency in 1999 without a public referendum.

The British press conference is nothing like the American press conference, where every questioner strains to sound like the Voice of Objectivity. The British press conference is a war. Journalists from newspapers who endorse Blair ask the sort of suck-up questions ("To what do you attribute your enormous lead in the polls?") that would be cause for dismissal from the New York Times. Journalists from newspapers against Labor attack with the sort of venom ("Are you not, sir, a proven liar?") that would be cause for the removal of a White House press pass. So far as I can tell there is nothing you can do to get expelled from a British press conference. At the end of today's session, for instance, the right-wing journalist Peter Hitchens flips on his boombox to drown out Labor's sugary theme song ("Things Are Going to Get Better") with the soundtrack from a disaster movie.

At the Tory press conference later this afternoon, the MPs stand in front of a giant kaleidoscopic movie screen. "YOU CAN'T BELIEVE A SINGLE WORD MR. BLAIR SAYS," reads the banner at the top. Every three seconds Blair's face flashes up on the screen before receding into darkness. Each time Blair's face is a different color, as in a Warhol silk-screen series. A Tory Cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, sits calmly in front of the fluctuating screen, reading his assessment of Blair's character. "The more he panics, the more he lies ... deep down he is shallow. Everything he says, every twist he makes [here the screen splits alarmingly into 16 tiny squares, each one containing a grotesquely colored head of Tony Blair], every word he speaks is a deliberate deception planned months ago to divert attention from the real issue--the cost of their economic plans."

All of which goes to show, I suppose, that the British are not so polite as we like to think. Being nice doesn't count for much in British politics. If he ran for prime minister, Lamar Alexander would be toast.

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April 25

The strange thing about the hysteria here is that, on the surface at least, there is not all that much to be hysterical about. On the big issues the two parties now agree. Politics in Britain is no longer a struggle of issues, or of ideas, or even of classes. It is struggle of similar products. Coke vs. Pepsi. The genius of Tony Blair is to understand this, and to devote enormous energy to the trivia that causes people to choose between two nearly identical products: hairstyles, skin tones, party colors, newspaper quotes, nonce words.

The two parties offer not so much different policies as different moods. The Tory mood is the same as ever, a blend of free-market mania and British triumphalism. The Labor mood, Blair's great creation, is socialism of the spirit but not the deed. Blair claims, for instance, that he would like to spend more on education and health care. But he has also sworn that he will not raise taxes. So where will the money come from?

"From the rich" is the old left-wing answer. But rich people in Britain, like rich people in America, now have more ability to fleece the government than the government has to fleece them. Twenty years ago Britain had laws which prevented capital from going anywhere. Today a billionaire can transfer everything into dollars with a phone call. With a second phone call he can borrow the value of his mansion in pounds, and then sell those pounds for dollars. He's nearly untouchable. The result is that all of Labor's putatively socialistic policies either are not very socialistic, or not very likely to occur. For example, the Labor Party has promised to tax the "excess profits" of formerly nationalized industries. The idea is to punish the so-called "fat cat" chief executives who paid themselves too well in the 1980s. But the tax doesn't fall on the fat cats at all (most of them have moved on anyway). It falls on the shareholders, mainly U.K. pension funds owned by people of modest means.

In place of plausible new policies, Blair has inserted his personality. When you are around him you really do feel like Things Are Going to Get Better. In this respect he is distinctly un-English.

There was a revealing passage in his speech the other day, in which he first put across his hard line toward Europe. As he read from his script you could see him grow more restless as his audience grew more bored. All his life Blair has been onstage-- schoolboy actor, college rock musician, young barrister--and he has developed a great intuitive sense of his audience's mood. And as he neared the end he did something no American politician in the same situation ever would do. He tossed away his script.

The official text ended with a few crisp lines:

New Labour is the genuinely patriotic party in Britain today. And unlike our opponents, we have the leadership, a sense of purpose and the policies to give Britain back its confidence and its influence. We want to build a nation in which everyone has the chance to get on and fulfil their ambitions.

What emerged from Blair instead was a painfully inarticulate and possibly futile longing for something larger than the script--and the world--as he finds it:

Century upon century of British history ... if you think about Britain. Enormous! Centuries back of history! Enormous swathes of history that Britain has either dominated or been one of the dominant powers in the history of the world. Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations. That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future. It can be part of our future.

Something in Blair clearly wants to strike a high note--to make his audience feel as though they are hearing his authentic voice, even after he has built around himself an American-style campaign structure designed to preserve his inauthenticity. That he doesn't know what to say almost doesn't matter--at least for now. Somehow he has managed to preserve a pair of qualities that almost never survive the British public-school system: faith and enthusiasm.

April 26

One of the more poignant memories from the eight years I spent in England was a visit to a grocery store, circa 1984, to pick up a certain brand of biscuit. I had bought the things in grotesquely large, American-sized quantities for the previous six months, but this time could not find them at all, anywhere. "We used to stock that," explained the matron behind the counter, "but we kept running out, and so we stopped." This stunningly anti-commercial but then typically British attitude used to be the first thing the American noticed, but it is now much harder to locate. The long, loud stretch of shops on Tottenham Court Road satisfies personal electronic needs with the same brutal joylessness as the old 47th Street Photo in New York. The phones work, the service is brisk, the pound is strong, and the businessmen are nearly as vain about their success as they are in America. Even the weather seems better.

Nothing in living American memory compares to what has occurred in Britain in the past two decades. An editor friend of mine compiling a pictorial essay of the era was struck mainly by its violence: miners' strikes, Brixton riots, Brighton bombings, football hooligans. To call it "The Thatcher Revolution" was not hyperbole, he suddenly realized. A whole culture experienced not merely a rise in the standards of living but psychological trauma. Fear of poverty and greed for wealth, for instance, are now ingrained in British life in a way they were not before.

Such a radical cultural change is bound to find political expression. Tony Blair is it.

April 27

The Observer runs a two-page spread explaining tactical voting under the headline: "How You Can Secure a Total Tory Defeat." One of the tabloids runs a piece by a Tory MP predicting a Labor landslide.

Michael Lewis is the author Trail Fever, about the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign, among other books.