Poll Britannia

Poll Britannia

Poll Britannia

What the foreign papers are saying.
June 8 2001 8:30 PM

Poll Britannia

In Thursday's British general election, the Labor Party earned a second consecutive majority for the first time in its 100-year existence. It maintained the landslide scale of its 1997 triumph, the biggest re-election margin in British history, and consigned the formerly dominant Conservative Party to a distant second-place finish. But despite the historic dimensions of the Labor victory, the press's reaction was a rather sour "ho-hum."

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Although Friday morning's papers struggled to assimilate the election news—William Hague's resignation from the Conservative Party leadership; the Liberal Democrats' best result since 1929; the lowest voter turnout since 1918—the script was written before voters went to the polls. In the Guardian, former Labor Cabinet minister Roy Hattersley announced that the past four weeks represented "the most boring election campaign in history"; an op-ed in the Financial Times dubbed it "the dullest in living memory"; and the Daily Mirror declared it "one of the most tedious campaigns anyone can remember." As the Times observed, this was partly because the outcome was considered a foregone conclusion: "[T]he static opinion polls have diminished the theatrical suspense." The papers were also clearly frustrated by what they saw as excessive spin control: There were no televised debates, and several key politicians effectively disappeared from the public eye. The Guardian moaned, "Politicians of all parties have insulted the public by their alienating 'on-message' refusal to answer a straight question or respond to a human plea with anything other than their scripted 'talking points.' " What's more, as the Independent noted, where vast philosophical differences once separated the Labor and Conservative platforms, now "[t]here are no great clashes of ideology, just choices between different ways to manage a relatively prosperous country."

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June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

While some European papers, such as Spain's El Mundo, which described the British election as a contest between "a left without beliefs against a right without ideas," mocked the rightward movement of the nominally socialist Labor Party, elsewhere it was seen as a benefit. Last week, the Economist endorsed Labor by stating, "The Blair we support with our vote is the one who admires Margaret Thatcher and has followed many of her policies." Other publications concurred, including the Age of Melbourne, which anointed Blair's New Labor "the true inheritor of the Thatcher mantle." Indeed, even the Times of London endorsed Labor for the first time because it felt the party "has consolidated many elements of Thatcherism" and "deserves the votes of reformers." As Libération of France pointed out, "Almost all [Britain's] media supported Tony Blair, but without enthusiasm"—only Conrad Black's Telegraph and Lord Rothermere's Mail came out for the Tories. Even Britain's liberal press expressed reservations about Labor's first-term performance: The Guardian complained "there have been far too many letdowns," and the Mirror admitted "it would be foolish to pretend that there have not been disappointments."

Still, although Rupert Murdoch's Sun declared William Hague "a leader with dignity and determination under fire," the Tories' anti-Europe election strategy was roundly criticized. The Independent was dismissive: "[T]he present Conservative Party is so fundamentally inward-looking that it seems incapable of providing this country with the leadership it needs." Sentiments echoed by the Mirror: "There needs to be a strong opposition to any government, but this Conservative Party is not fit to oppose, let alone govern. It is too extreme, too inward-looking and too obsessed with the EU, which it believes is a threat to Britain instead of a union of allies who, together, can achieve great things."

As unenthusiastic as the papers may have been about the conduct of the 2001 election, they were quick to call attention to the British system's advantages. The Times noted that at 31 days, the entire campaign was "just four days shorter than the Florida recount which left Americans uncertain as to whom would serve as their President." The paper also pointed out that all the British parties combined spent less money over the course of the official campaign than New Jersey's Jon Corzine shelled out to secure his seat in the U.S. Senate. In the Independent, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin raved about the British election's focus on the issues. With "cultural warfare" off the agenda—on the whole, battles over topics such as prayer in schools, the death penalty, or abortion are absent from British electoral politics—"the social issues so prevalent in American elections barely register."

The most bizarre endorsement of Tony Blair came from the Mirror, which somehow discovered that Blair wears Calvin Klein underwear. Apparently, this was "the final nail in William Hague's coffin."

Men who wear Calvin Kleins are cool. They just are. This simple fashion statement spells confidence, poise, good sense, sound judgment, style. It oozes class and statesmanship. And modernity. And SUCCESS. … Hague wears Y-fronts. They spell old-fashioned, out-dated, unimaginative, BORING. They signify one word: Failure.

The death of Hitler: Since April, Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF has lost three very prominent supporters—the party's chief strategist and the nation's defense minister, both of whom died in car accidents, and, earlier this week, war veterans' leader Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi. An op-ed in Zimbabwe's opposition Daily News suggested supernatural causes for the string of fatalities: "[E]ven the most hard-boiled party loyalist must be wondering why the Fates have suddenly unleashed this string of disasters on the party." The Daily Telegraph's obituary for Hunzvi portrayed him as a perpetrator of "opportunistic buffoonery and unbridled mischief-making," whose "mixture of inflammatory rhetoric and street-brawling thuggishness brought the country's political temperature to boiling point." According to the Guardian, in 1997 Hunzvi pressured President Robert Mugabe into granting generous pensions to veterans of the liberation struggle. "The money, which had not been included in the national budget, prompted a dramatic crash in the value of the Zimbabwe dollar, and the nation's economy has been in a downward spiral ever since." In recent years, Hunzvi led the campaign to seize white-owned farms, and he was accused of violent intimidation and torture during last year's election campaign.