British society is a three-party system stuffed into a two-party duopoly.

British society is a three-party system stuffed into a two-party duopoly.

British society is a three-party system stuffed into a two-party duopoly.

A wartime lexicon.
May 3 2010 1:44 PM

Au Revoir to the Status Quo

British society is a three-party system stuffed into a two-party duopoly.

In Newsweek: Voters don't find the idea of a hung Parliament as disastrous as they used to.

Nick Clegg. Click image to expand.
Nick Clegg

An officer candidate being interviewed for a posting on the British general staff was once asked to define the role of cavalry in modern warfare. He replied that it was to lend some color and dash to what would otherwise be a somewhat dreary and sordid occasion. Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, is the equivalent of the cavalry in the case of Thursday's British general election. Until his eruption onto the scene, the muddy battlefield was a dull trench war between two heavily armored divisions, each of them wearily familiar with the tactics and strategy of the other.

Years ago, when I toiled as a columnist for The Nation, Nick Clegg was my intern. (So, for that matter, was Edward Miliband, Gordon Brown's minister for energy and climate change and brother of Brown's most likely replacement, Foreign Secretary David Miliband.) I have done my best to trade on this mentoring relationship with power, to little avail. Clegg worked for me in the magazine's New York offices while I was writing from Washington, so our direct contact was limited. What I chiefly remember, apart from his now-famous personal charm, was how "European" he was. His parentage was partly Dutch and partly Russian. He has since married a Spanish woman and has three children with Spanish names. And, of course, his party is the one most closely identified with the British aspiration to full British engagement in the European Union. This is the strength and the weakness of his position, and of his party.

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I wrote last week of the way in which European peoples are looking at one another sidelong (and not in a nice way) since the reduction of the Greek economy to an abject state of beggary and dependence. If you get a chance, look at what the German tabloid press is saying about the Greeks: It shows the European spirit in a pretty tattered and emaciated state. And, while it was inevitable that Gordon Brown's contents-under-pressure boorishness would one day disclose itself in some ugly manner right in front of the electorate, as happened last week, it wasn't at all a certainty that on the question at issue he would happen to be more right than wrong. It was universally said that the annoying old lady who cornered him in the street was upset about "immigration." For decades, this has been a code word for working-class resentment at the arrival of former colonial subjects from the Caribbean and Asia, the big recruiting topic of the post-Nazi British National Party, which has also been making inroads in some traditional Labor seats. But this woman was exercised by the huge number of white and blue-eyed Poles who had come to England not to settle but as "guest workers" in the construction and electrical sectors. The prime minister was quite right to remind her that under the same terms of free movement within the European Union, millions of British people had also taken advantage of the right to work on the continent.

There's a whole sector of the British professional class that probably knows Tuscany and Provence better than it knows large areas of post-industrial Britain. But this "Europeanized" layer is not large enough to swing an election, especially at a time when the stupendous size of Britain's debt puts it at risk from the same continentwide factors that have ruined the Greek economy. This, in turn, is why some of those who rate bonds have been warning that a so-called hung Parliament, unable to arrive at swift or difficult decisions, would endanger the stability of sterling and cause a crisis of confidence in Britain's decisive financial system. And a hung Parliament is precisely the contingency that Nick Clegg's sudden emergence makes many times more likely.

This should not have come as such a surprise. If you exempt the appeal of strictly local nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, British society is actually a three-party system stitched and corseted into a two-party duopoly. The duopoly is reinforced by the apportionment of seats in Parliament, which fails to reflect the number of votes cast for each party and instead bases itself on a winner-take-all regime. About once every generation this breaks down. In the mid-1970s, Jeremy Thorpe's Liberal Party suddenly won 6 million votes and upset the re-election plans of Edward Heath's Tories. Those Liberal ballots were votes cast, in part, as an oblique demand for proportional representation. On that occasion, though Heath had not exactly been defeated, as the incumbent he could be said to have lost much more than he had won, and he had to go. The same harsh logic will face Gordon Brown later this week if his party is anything but convincingly ahead: The Clegg forces will not wish to bond with Labor in such a way as to prolong a discredited status quo. That would be change nobody could believe in. Even David Cameron's Tories look fresh and uncorrupted by comparison.

And it is, ultimately, as a status quo party that Labor is being defeated. Brown comes before us as a man who has spent his entire life intriguing with gnawing, neurotic energy for power for its own sake, only to find, when he attains the prize, that it doesn't soothe his demons after all. A party with a history of radicalism, however attenuated, simply cannot afford to present itself as the party of safety first and a steady hand on the Treasury tiller.

In the brave old days, I used to know Ralph Miliband, father of David and Edward and one of Britain's leading Marxist intellectuals. There was a European for you: part Polish, part Belgian, and part Jewish, arriving in England on forged papers as an illegal immigrant refugee from Hitler. His best-known book was Parliamentary Socialism, in which he analyzed Labor's attempt to transform society through the ballot box. His conclusion was that a party too wedded to pragmatism and compromise would in the end sacrifice its principles, but in doing so it would also cease to work as an electoral machine. Perhaps I'll take this book down from the dusty old shelf on which I have preserved it.

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Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.