The British Election

The British Election

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 23 1997 3:30 AM

The British Election

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At 10 o'clock this morning in Manchester, 20 or so journalists and the entire Labor campaign stumble across the road from our hotel and into a convention center to witness the disjuncture between rhetoric and reality. One of the nice things about a British political speech is that you don't have to wait around to hear it. There's no drumroll, little ceremony. The minute we are seated Tony Blair pops out from the wings and lets fly. It's the last of his four major policy addresses, about Britain's role in the world under the Labor Party. This sounds identical to Britain's role in the world under the Tories. Blair is a pro-American business enthusiast who has pledged never to raise taxes. Today he associates himself further with the Tory party line by insisting that he will guard the British Way of Life against the threat posed by the European Union. To deliver the speech, John Major would need only to switch "Labor" for "Tory" whenever it appeared in the text, and prune the curious diction Blair has introduced into British politics.

The thing to say about Blair is that he is supremely self-assured, but this is not quite specific enough. Blair is assured not by his self but by his hands. Blair's hands are the great stabilizers: They shuffle papers on the snow-white lectern; they point to the crowd; they reach for the sky. And whenever Blair finds himself on unstable political ground they clutch the air in front of him as if grabbing a stronghold on a subway strap. Blair's the Muscular Christian--a bit like Ian Charleson in Chariots of Fire. He's handsome, though not offensively so, and articulate without sounding glib.

But still there remains the mystery of his diction. Blair is a very gifted orator, who normally considers carefully the meaning of his words, but when he tries to poach traditional Tory issues without seeming to, his words lose their meaning. Hope, vision, change, better, new, future, leadership: Precisely the same words that long ago were stripped of their meaning by American politicians are now being denuded by English politicians. Blair does not speak of the Labor Party but of "New Labor." "New Labor for a New Britain," reads the side of Blair's battle bus. To Blair's ears these names must sound like a strategy for victory; to my ears New Labor and New Britain sound like villages in Connecticut. Can it be long before this country is renamed New England?

Before I go any further I probably should explain a bit more generally about what's going on over here. In a nutshell: British political people are rapidly becoming as ridiculously unbelievable as American ones.

The conventional wisdom is that the Labor Party has simply stolen American-style campaign techniques. Instead of coming out into the light and fighting like old-fashioned British politicians, they remain scheming behind closed doors like George Stephanopoulos and James Carville. They no longer talk; they spin. They no longer have convictions; they have polls. They no longer have leaders; they have consultants. A Labor MP named Clare Short stunk up the tabloids late last summer with her acid description of Blair's political advisers. "I sometimes call them the people who live in the dark," she told the New Statesman. "Everything they do is in hiding. ... It's a good place for them, I think."

Nothing offends the Labor Party people (who work in a hideous tower on the Thames) so much as when you bring this up, or compare their handiwork to the Clinton campaign. In their view they have done nothing dishonorable or even American; they've merely adopted the Tory tactics of the last 17 years. And they're right! (In 1978, according to Hugo Young's biography of the Iron Lady, Mrs. Thatcher informed her newly acquired advertisers, Saatchi & Saatchi, that their mission was "the selling of the brand in the most acceptable way.") But nothing could be more Clintonian than to steal the most sinister ideas of the opposition. After all, the Democrats learned about the uses of darkness from Republicans: Lee Atwater made James Carville possible. The Clintonians have used darkness more effectively, but that's only as you'd expect. The first boxer to throw a rabbit punch does so with modest conviction, with one eye on the referee. His victim feels less hesitant in his reply: He's earned a right to swing for the balls.

One example can illustrate the extra step taken by the Labor Party in the direction of American mendacity. It is a small example but typical of the sort of thing that catches your eye in the British newspapers every day. A few days ago the left-wing paper the Guardian surveyed Labor and Tory insiders. The paper first asked a Tory MP, David Willets, about the fairness of a Labor ad charging that John Major had raised taxes 22 times, while failing to mention that Major also had lowered taxes 25 times. "We can't be holier than thou," said the Tory. "Campaigning is a mixture of positive and negative." A fair-minded man! Or at any rate a man who still thinks that it is better to appear fair-minded than to spin. Very British, in either case.

Next a Labor MP named Brian Wilson was asked what he made of the Tories' ad that accused Tony Blair of hypocrisy for shipping his kids away to school, to avoid the local school notoriously undermined by the Labor-controlled local council. "Definitely over the borderline," said Wilson, huffily, "because it's more personal than professional." Very American.

And very New Labor. New Labor runs a funny newspaper ad depicting John Major and his chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, as Laurel and Hardy, and the Tories do not even bother to respond. The Tories run a funny newspaper ad that depicts Blair as a puppet on German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's knee, and New Labor spends a week whining that the Tory Party alone is running a negative campaign. Clearly their new leaders now believe even more strongly than the Tories in the power of lying. It doesn't do to become indignant about this. But it's interesting all the same. Why aren't the British people more upset about this?

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