If Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats do as well as expected, the entire British electoral system could change.

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April 26 2010 8:08 PM

A Very British Revolution

If Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats do as well as expected, the entire electoral system could change.

Nick Clegg. Click image to expand.
Nick Clegg

Here is a riddle: What would the Tea Party movement look like if it were British, privately educated, and had once worked as a ski instructor in Austria?

Here is the answer: It would look like Nick Clegg, leader of the British Liberal Democrats—and possibly the beneficiary of the biggest British voters' revolution in decades. For those who don't follow these things, the Liberal Democrats are Britain's historically insignificant third party. In its current incarnation, the party dates from the late 1980s, back when the Labor Party was a near-Marxist monolith, the Tories were the party of Margaret Thatcher, and there was a lot of space in between.

Since then, the party has taken some odd turns, sometimes championing quirky local causes, sometimes floating to the left or the right of the political spectrum, often leaving the center ground that it once claimed for its own. Now, after years of drift, Clegg has suddenly found the party a position that works. Instead of ideology, he offers an option: If you are sick of the Labor Party, if you can't bring yourself to vote Tory, if you are bored of the two-party system, then vote for me.

Of course, he doesn't quite put it that way, but that seems to be the message voters got from his performance earlier this month in the first televised British leaders debate. This event was a mini-revolution in itself: Until this election, British politicians did not hold debates in the American style—standing behind lecterns, debating selected issues in front of a selected audience—because tradition dictated that important debates took place in Parliament. But in the last few years, the significance of Parliament has been waning—a new generation of voters doesn't understand its rules and conventions—while the importance of staged TV appearances has been growing. And Clegg, as it turns out, is very, very good at staged TV appearances.

What makes him "good" is partly his unstudied manner: With nothing to lose, he seems more relaxed than his opponents. He also breaks taboos—he isn't much bothered about high levels of immigration, for example. He might even be attractive because of his background: Clegg's mother is Dutch, his wife is Spanish, and his children are bilingual. Maybe, just maybe, British voters are slowly becoming more "European" than their politicians think.

Or maybe they really are simply sick of the Labor Party, which has been running Britain since 1997, and can't quite convince themselves that David Cameron, the "modernizing" Tory leader, is really as "modern" as he says. Clearly they are worn out by the parliamentary expenses scandals, which hit both of the main parties equally hard. No doubt they want to protest against politics in general and the bad economy in particular. Whatever the reason, Clegg's ratings soared in the wake of the first debate, and in some polls, the Liberal Democrats are now ahead of the Labor Party.

This was amusing at first. ("Clegg who?") But as the elections draw nearer, the mainstream parties have ceased to be amused. If the current poll numbers hold until the election on May 6, the Labor Party could come third in the popular vote but still have the most seats in Parliament. The Conservative Party could win but not have enough of a majority to run the country. The Liberal Democrats could form a coalition with either party, but Clegg has said that his price will be a new British voting system.

This would be—again, we are speaking in British terms here—an unthinkable, revolutionary change. Most European countries vote according to the rules of proportional representation, and, as a result, their parliaments contain several parties, and the government is often a coalition. Britain, like the United States, has first-past-the-post voting, which creates its two-party system and, usually, a one-party government—albeit one with far fewer checks and balances than the United States.

Supposedly, the ordinary voter—the mythical "man on the Clapham omnibus"—cherishes this uniquely British political system, often cheerfully referred to as "our elected dictatorship." Working on that assumption, the Conservative and Labor parties have issued dark pleas to the voters: This could be the very last general election to be held under those very British rules; this could be the end of politics as we know it; and so on.

Maybe these dire threats will win voters back by next Thursday.But at the moment, it seems that the man on the Clapham omnibus, like his Tea Partying colleagues across the Atlantic, is perfectly happy to vote for the end of politics as we know it. The faster the better, please.

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