Scenes From the British Election

Last-Minute Jitters as the Campaign Winds Down
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 6 2010 4:53 PM

Scenes From the British Election

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Polling Station on Brick Lane 

ELECTION DAY, 8:30 p.m.—A Liberal Democrat canvasser named Andrew has just rung the doorbell. "It's tense," he says, when I ask him about the outcome of the vote in Camden—it's in the constituency of Holborn and St. Pancras. "Interestingly tense." He then appears to juggle invisible balls between his hands. "It's very, very close." The Lib Dems are neck and neck with Labor in a seat Labor has held for years. The turnout may be the biggest in 30 years. Go and look at the queue at the polling station 'round the corner, he says.

So I do, and it's true. On Fitzroy Road there's a queue of more than 50 people waiting to vote, with more turning up as others leave.

On the front page of today's Daily Mirror, the Labor-supporting tabloid, is the famous photograph of members of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club in 1987. David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and eight others are at the entrance to the club. Cameron apparently finds that photograph very embarrassing, and it's easy to see why. He and his fellow members look like a troupe of porters at a grand hotel who have been asked to find a cab for a guest and have failed completely.

That photo is all over the Internet (although it's illegal to reprint it, since the copyright holders refuse to allow it to be republished), and it has inspired a play that's currently playing at the Royal Court, Posh. "This picture was, and is, in the public domain," said a righteous-sounding Mirror spokesman, "and its publication is absolutely in the public interest and will help inform voters' decisions before they cast their vote."

"The case against David Cameron is not that he is a posh boy," says Tony Parsons in the article accompanying the photo. "The real case against David Cameron is dead simple and it is not tainted with class envy and it is as uncomplicated as an empty bottle of Bollinger smacking against a peasant's forelock. ... Cameron is living proof that the thick children of the wealthy now do better in this country than the bright children of the poor."

Which is to say, according to the Daily Mirror, that the case against Cameron is that he's posh, and it is tainted by class envy. Maybe appealing to class interest hasn't proved as effective as it was a generation ago. Eton, where Cameron went to school, isn't attacked for the quality of its education but because you have to be incredibly rich to send your children there. The annual fees at Eton are higher than the average income of most people in the country.

Today, the Sun depicts Cameron as Barack Obama was depicted on a famous poster. "Our only hope," says the Sun headline. That is weird: It's not as if a Cameron victory would be as historic as Obama's. Nor did Cameron did give a famous speech on race or defend his preacher before abandoning him. Cameron did not say: "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, and cousins who are all British and are scattered across this island, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." But Cameron could have said that, and it would mostly be true.

Candidates in British elections don't invoke history as much as American politicians do. It would be considered either embarrassing or so much educated waffle. So there's no going on about Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, or the Reform Bill. A country without a constitution also has no Founding Fathers, and despite the fact that a novel about Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the English reformation remains a best-seller—Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall—appeals to history are infrequent.

Even the most nationalistic of British political parties, the U.K. Independence Party and the British National Party, don't go on about history. The most historical feature in the photograph of Nick Griffin on the BNP's Web site is the antiquated ink blotter on his desk.

This morning, the main papers all said that a Conservative victory was still a possibility, which, the Guardian's Marina Hyde pointed out, would mean yet another victory for Rupert Murdoch, who has been backing British political winners since 1979. But as Hyde also said, this election was transformed by Nick Clegg. The outcome is uncertain because of the Lib Dems—and it is so uncertain that Clegg's party may still come in third and capture fewer than 100 seats in the House of Commons. Still, the canvasser who came to the door not so long ago was optimistic.

It's tense. Interestingly tense.

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