Scenes From the British Election

Why Does Glenda Jackson Sound So Defensive?
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 27 2010 4:21 PM

Scenes From the British Election

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Glenda Jackson. Click image to expand.
Glenda Jackson

"Always put your money on the winner," said the white-haired man at the entrance to the playground of Salusbury Primary School in northwest London Sunday morning. This advice came from someone with an instinct for gambling whose bets haven't always paid out: He was selling copies of The Big Issue, a publication that gives homeless people the chance to make money by selling the magazine on the streets.

On Sundays, that playground is the site of the popular Queen's Park farmers market, and he was referring to some of the other people at its gates: the Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat candidates contesting the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency in this year's British general election. Right now, there's no knowing which of the three will win.

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Actress-turned-politician Glenda Jackson is the Labor incumbent (though recent boundary changes made by the Electoral Commission mean that the constituency has changed somewhat); Chris Philp, an Oxford-trained physicist who is also an entrepreneur, is the Conservative; and Ed Fordham, a 39-year-old local councilor and former university administrator, is the Liberal Democrat. Jackson is famous, but the height of her fame was in the 1960s and early '70s—see this famous appearance on the Morecambe and Wise Show—so Philp and Fordham were too young to know it. Five other candidates are standing, including author, journalist, and Green Party member Beatrix Campbell, though neither she nor the others were at the green market Sunday morning.

Who will win? Monday's opinion poll puts Fordham ahead of Jackson, though that lead can't be taken for granted. Nor—amazingly—can the outcome of the general election. As of April 27, no one is sure who will form the next government, or how—which is remarkable, because when Gordon Brown announced the election on April 5, there were two possibilities. Either David Cameron and the Conservatives would win narrowly, or Brown would scrape through—just as Conservative John Major did in 1992—and Labor would have a fourth consecutive victory.

The former is still possible, the latter tremendously unlikely. One man has upended both assumptions: Nick Clegg. Clegg's performances in the two televised leaders debates already broadcast—the final debate is this Thursday—have transformed his party and this election. Before the debates, Clegg and the Liberals were the third party, just as they've been for decades, and they were treated as such. Now they're second, above Labor.

Some pundits, such as the ubiquitous Andrew Neil—a TV talk show host and former editor of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times—dismiss the rise of Clegg as a short-term bubble and emphasize instead the new power of television to influence the outcome of British elections. Leaders debates are a new factor in British general elections. But TV people love nothing more than to talk up their own power: Just because someone comes across well on television, as Clegg has done, doesn't mean what they say is irrelevant.

And this election is, after all, about the center ground. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, but Cameron's Conservatives talk about the Big Society, communitarianism, and the "politics of meaning"—it's Michael Lerner once more, only this time from the right. "We're all in this together," say Cameron and the Conservatives, although the phrase sounds as if it's been adapted from the chorus of the famous boating song at Cameron's old school, Eton.

Brown and Labor emphasize hard work, middle-class aspirations, and prosperity that is self-made rather than of the inherited variety—they are more instinctively American-minded than even the Conservatives. Under New Labor, there's been a concerted effort to Americanize Britain. The law lords, Britain's most important panel of judges, have been replaced with a Supreme Court, though the law lords still insist on being known as lords. The office of the Lord Chancellor, the embodiment of the idea of government in parliament—head of the judiciary, part of the executive, and, as speaker of the House of Lords, a leader of the legislature—has been abolished. The Public Record Office is now called, as it is in the United States, the National Archives.

There's no reason to doubt Brown when he says that Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard" is his favorite poem—he is sincere—and yet he can come across as such a WASP, which isn't so surprising. Brown has spent many summers on Cape Cod soaking up the East Coast atmosphere; his Presbyterian convictions aren't that different from those of the people who landed on Plymouth Rock; his rhetoric, when he uses it, is religious. Yet there's the cumbersome manner: Brown never looks as if he properly fits his own suits.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have been at the center for longer than their rivals. They have worked through any number of electoral failures and have the advantage of knowing what the center is and what it can't be. They also accept the obvious: Britain is emphatically part of Europe and is as interdependent with the continent as it is with the United States. Clegg's heritage is British, Dutch, and Russian, and he's not wrong when he says that the widespread British preoccupation with World War II is absurd, or that climate change is a reality. Cameron and Brown have attacked the Liberals' proposal to scrap a new generation of Trident nuclear missiles. That, they say, would lead to Britain's departure from the U.N. Security Council, though there's no provision in the U.N. charter that says its permanent members must have nuclear weapons. If there are to be fewer nuclear missiles, not more, then it would hardly be the end of the world—or the United Nations—if one permanent member of the security council were to renounce nuclear weapons altogether. You might even call that progress. Not that the Liberal Democrats have gone that far.

The Lib Dems are second in a number of polls, and if after Election Day they remain in third place—at least according to their number of seats in the House of Commons—they may have increased their share of parliamentary seats enough that neither Labor nor the Conservatives have an overall majority. "Hung Parliament" is the misleading British term for government by coalition; it gives the impression that a divided parliament is as good as a dead parliament and that only a parliament ruled by a strong majority party will do. From the point of view of executive power—that is the prime minister and the Cabinet—a divided parliament is difficult to navigate, but you can't help thinking that one of the gripes British voters have in this general election is about executive power and how it has been used by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and the Labor Party.

Another major gripe is the expenses many MPs awarded themselves. If MPs, like the reviled bankers (see this column by India Knight), failed to regulate themselves, how far can they be trusted now? There's the widely loathed war in Iraq, which for many is an example of how Tony Blair abused his power. Whatever Brown may say or do—and even if Paul Krugman famously suggested at the height of the banking crisis in 2008 that Brown had saved the world—the prime minister is stuck with the legacy of his predecessor. He can't escape what Blair did, which was to join the Iraq war too slavishly with George Bush.

Whoever forms the next government will have the far from easy task of pruning the budget and cutting the deficit. (The Financial Times has published an interactive graphic, the Deficit Buster, which allows users to role-play which expenditures must be scaled back or axed.) Numerous commentators have complained that in the debates all three party leaders have shied away from serious discussion of the cuts they must propose once a new government is formed, but such are the stakes in this election, and such is the scale of the deficit, that it's inevitable politicians will talk up the good news while ignoring the bad.

At a Monday morning rally, Gordon Brown emphasized the glorious spending ahead, should Labor retain power. This would include a large new scientific research establishment Brown wants to build next to St. Pancras international railway station in London. It will cost 1 billion pounds ($1.53 billion), says Brown. Spending and borrowing to get through a recession is one theory of how a government and a country should get through a severe downturn, but Brown loves to state the price of absolutely everything. Cost is king. So instead of saying it's his intention to preserve the reputation of scientific research in Britain and leaving it at that, Brown is compelled to include its price. One billion pounds! A new bridge built in the Lake District to replace one that was washed away in heavy floods this winter isn't just a new bridge, it's a 4-million-pound bridge. "This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition," writes Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books. "It is an acquired taste."

So is winning and losing. As the man at the school gates said, put your money on the winner. Betting in Britain has become insane. It's everywhere. You can bet on almost anything, almost anywhere; online, off-track, on television, on your computer screen. At Ladbroke's, the high-street betting chain, you can gamble on the election, and on how many seats each party will win. You can bet about how many people will watch this Thursday's TV debate. You can gamble on what phrases will be repeated in the debate. Will "bankers' bonuses" be heard more often than "age of austerity"? Will "I agree with Nick" outpace "five more years of Gordon Brown"? Politics, for some people, is just another excuse for a flutter.

None of the candidates seem to know Hampstead and Kilburn as well as Ed Fordham, who explains that 52 per cent of the population is foreign-born. Fordham speaks about the demography of the constituency as an American campaigner would, which is less surprising after he reveals that Howard Dean has advised both him and the Liberal Democrats. He says he recently knocked on one door and found himself talking with a former Ghanaian Cabinet minister who had retired to Britain and that the most common surname in the constituency is Patel. Kilburn has long been an Irish enclave; now there are also Somalis, Kosovars, and Bengalis. There are the Americans in Hampstead, and the media people in Queen's Park. If the cultural, religious, ethnic, and economic diversity of Hampstead and Kilburn resembles the setting for Zadie Smith's White Teeth, that's because it does. Smith lives in the constituency.

Working for the Hampstead and Kilburn Conservatives is Jennifer Power, a Minnesota native currently at grad school at the London School of Economics. She voted for the Democrats and for Barack Obama in 2008, but she sees no contradiction in now canvassing for the Conservatives in Britain. Women's rights and gun regulation—that's the difference between Conservatives and Republicans, she said. British Conservatives are often social liberals; American conservatives often aren't. Chris Philp, the Tory candidate, looks like Ralph Fiennes. He is articulate and somewhat shy, which hasn't in recent times been a typically Conservative trait. An election flier shows the many campaigns he's launched since becoming a candidate: He averted the closure of a Tube station; supported a new crossing on a busy road; saved Hampstead police station; campaigned against the closure of the emergency stroke unit at the Royal Free Hospital—the far from unimportant local stuff that tends to get brushed aside in the larger narrative of modern general elections.

"There's no such thing as gratitude in politics," said Rob Grover, a Labor canvasser in Queen's Park. "All politics ends in failure," said Enoch Powell many years ago. Glenda Jackson doesn't look, and doesn't sound, as if she has been defeated, or failed, but her firm delivery now seems as defensive as it is strident. I asked her about the banks, and if the financial crisis wasn't partly Brown's fault—he failed to regulate banks and was too dependent upon them to generate tax income for Labor's public-spending spree. "Excuse me," Jackson replies, fiercely. "It was Margaret Thatcher who deregulated the banks. It's an international banking crisis."

Earlier that morning, I called in at the house of Virginia Bonham-Carter on Queen's Park. Her husband, Charles Brand, a film producer, was helping with the Liberal Democrats' next TV broadcast. Three card tables had been installed in her living room—five more were expected. At each table, a Lib Dem supporter was writing names and addresses on envelopes that contained a letter from Ed Fordham. Every eligible voter in the constituency will receive one of these letters some time this week. Under U.K. election laws, each candidate is allowed to send one free mailing. Bonham-Carter explained that recipients are more likely to open them if they are addressed by hand.

Then Bonham-Carter showed me a letter she had received from Lord Andrew Adonis, who was the transport minister in Gordon Brown's government. "For many years I was a committed Liberal Democrat," Adonis' letter began, "I traveled around the country campaigning for progressive and socially liberal policies. I was even elected as a Liberal Democrat councilor on Oxford City Council. Today, I'm a Labour party Cabinet Minister actively campaigning for the return of a Labour government."

The date on Adonis' typed letter is April—no specific date. It must have been written before the first TV debate. Until then, it was presumed by the Labor Party, and by the Conservatives, that the Liberal Democrats would do no better than they have in so many previous elections, so a vote for the Lib Dems was a wasted vote.

Not anymore.

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

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