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

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
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.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.