Scenes From the British Election

Moving Out and Moving In
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May 11 2010 5:00 PM

Scenes From the British Election

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Nick Clegg. Click image to expand.
Nick Clegg 

"Breaking News: Benigno Aquino III set for landslide Philippines election victory." That was a rotating headline on the Guardian's home page at 6.45 p.m. local time—which, given the nature of the then-ongoing U.K. election, read like a joke at Britain's expense. The numbers 306, 258, 57, and 28—the number of seats won by the Conservatives, Labor, the Liberal Democrats, and other political parties, respectively—add up to anything but a landslide. It has been a stalemate. Now it's to be coalition politics. The blizzard of historical precedents that have been tossed out in the press over the last five days—not since 1974, not since 1945, not since 1931—will perhaps end. Isn't this all unprecedented?

So here we go: David Cameron will lead a Conservative and Liberal Democrat government whose terms will be known even later tonight or tomorrow morning. The most pro-European of the three major parties is now in alliance with the most anti-European. Who would have thought that likely when the election was announced soon after Easter? There may be several Lib Dems ministers in the new government. Some reporters are saying that Nick Clegg will be deputy prime minister. (For the latest updates, consult the BBC's election page or the Guardian's live blog.)

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Some things don't change. At 4 p.m., reporters in Downing Street said they had seen large bags being stuffed into the trunks of cars. Shifts of power in Britain are swift: If you're going out of power, the going is fast. If you live on Downing Street, one of your first calls after not winning an election is to the removal men.

Exactly how the talks between the Lib Dems and Labor collapsed isn't known. This time yesterday, those negotiations had only just begun, and it's hard to see how the Lib Dems could have avoided them before committing to the Tories. Temperamentally, the party is closer to Labor than it is to the Conservatives, but it would have been more difficult and maybe impossible for the Lib Dems to form a government with Labor, some of whose members apparently didn't want such a coalition, anyway. It was untenable that Gordon Brown could stay on as prime minister having announced that he would stand down once his party had selected a new leader.

"I think it's time to accept that we lost the election," Labor's Kate Hoey said this afternoon. And so they did. Soon after 7 p.m., Brown spoke in front of 10 Downing St.'s front door, as he did last night. This time, he said was resigning, and soon he was off to Buckingham Palace to tell the queen she should ask someone else to form a government.

This morning, Conservative MPs who hadn't known about the negotiations between Labor and the Lib Dems—for example, former minister Malcolm Rifkind—were apoplectic. They labeled Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg a traitor for walking away from the Tories. "If a deal is made of the two parties rejected by the electorate as a sort of government of the defeated," Rifkind said, "it will suggest that Mr. Brown and Mr. Clegg have joined the Robert Mugabe school of politics." If you remember the 1980s, this is what passes for Tory Party wit. We're going to have to get used to that all over again.

Rifkind then said that the crisis of the last five days is "a lousy advert" for proportional representation. "Any good that might come out of this mess is that it will bring home to a lot of people why PR is not a good system." Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, said much the same thing, The outcome of this election, according to Johnson, is "absolutely spectacular and scandalous" proof of the folly of PR.

There's just one problem with that assessment: The current situation isn't a consequence of proportional representation but the result of a first-past-the-post election. Contrary to what Rifkind said, the Lib Dems and Labor have not been "rejected," any more than the Conservatives have been "accepted." First-past-the-post politics sees only winners and losers, but this time round, as we all know, no party won an outright majority. Some Tories will forever decry the electoral reform that William Hague promised the Lib Dems yesterday, but that's not going to change the fact there are three main parties in Britain and that the last three decades, with their Tory and Labor majorities, aren't necessarily any guide to what will happen in the next 30 years. "Tories out, Tories out," shouted the crowd outside the Cabinet Office, where the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are discussing the terms of their coalition. We're going to get used to that again, as well.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this election was the turnout. Before May 6, many commentators and party activists had convinced themselves, and everyone else, that turnout would be back to pre-2001 levels—above 70 percent. As the turnout turned out, only 65 percent of voters went to the polls, which means this election had the third-lowest turnout since 1945. The electorate has fallen away in the New Labor years.

Why did voters choose not to vote? Because they remain disgusted with political representation after the parliamentary expenses scandals? Because they have ceased to believe politicians' promises? Because politics is something that happens on television, in the newspapers, or on the Web and not to voters themselves? Did the TV debates really galvanize voters, or did they concentrate too much attention on the three leaders and detract from others who form the leadership of the parties? Who's to say, but it can't be encouraging to anyone that so many stayed away from an election that was billed as one that would define a new era.

The press likes to focus on national trends rather than local concerns. Still, consider the constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon, which the Liberal Democrat incumbent Evan Harris, was expected to win. Harris is a physician and a prominent British secularist who supports euthanasia, stem-cell research, and abortion. He is hated by animal rights activists, who handed out flyers that called Harris "Dr. Death."

The Tories won the seat by 176 votes. The new MP is Nicola Blackwood, an opera singer and musicologist who attends St. Aldates, an evangelical church in central Oxford. "We … know that Oxford is a city which has seen awakening as well as martyrdom in the past, and we long to see a move of God through the whole town," the church says on its Web site. Prior to the election, writer John Gray said he thought it possible that the Conservative Party would more closely resemble right-wing parties in Europe, but it seems just as likely that some of the party may have much in common with the religious right wing of the Republicans.

Now Harris' party is allied to Blackwood's, which seems wholly unlikely. Even if the leaders of the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have thrashed out compromises, the question is just how long this alliance will last.

"It's like the royal wedding," a friend said while watching Clegg and Cameron move through London in their Jaguars after Brown resigned. If you remember, that marriage didn't exactly last.

Slate V: Meet Britain's New Prime Minister

Inigo Thomas lives in London. He writes for theLondon Review of Books.

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