May 072010

American commentary on the UK elections has me practically in stitches from laughter. This might have to become a series.

Take this, for instance, in Slate magazine (emphasis mine):

Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.

By contrast, Britain’s feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the ‘candidates’ in this election, it’s been their spontaneity and accessibility. Brown, for example, was so spontaneous that he called a little old Labour lady a bigot live on air. My local Labour and Conservative candidates were so ‘accessible’ that, in what was really four months of campaigning, not four weeks as Jacob Weisberg seems to think, I received one leaflet apiece from them. Not a single candidate’s supporters here actually doorstepped us; I only managed to talk to the one Lib Dem guy because I opened the door while he was… delivering a leaflet through the letterbox.

Substance, too, has been a running theme of this election: Brown has it, or so Mandelson would have us believe. But the ‘substance’ has been, more or less: Vote for me, I’m not as bad as the others! Yeah, that’s real substantive.

I don’t know what evidence Weisberg has for thinking that the British electorate is more ‘informed and engaged’ than the American one, especially since he wrote the article before the election and thus before voter turnout was known. American voter turnout in 2008 was about 61%; UK voter turnout this time round was 65%. That’s not a gigantic difference.

Later in the same article, Weisberg admires the intellectualism (he read Waiting for Godot!), atheism (his wife is a man of faith!), and multiculturalism (Dutch father! Spanish wife! Bruges and Brussels!) of Nick Clegg, whom he ‘laid eyes on’ once in Birmingham. On that occasion, Weisberg reports, Clegg failed to answer a direct question from a voter (‘Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he’s already said’) because evidently she wasn’t listening hard enough the first time, then ‘patiently tries to bring her around’ when, having been asked what she thinks, she tells him it’s his job to answer the questions, not hers. But that’s all right, because Clegg ‘handled a tough customer well.’ Um, what? Clegg treated her like she was an idiot. No wonder the Lib Dems lost seats.

Weisberg’s attitude toward Cameron, however, is nothing like so enthusiastic:

I’d seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people.

One has to wonder, now the count is in, whether ‘modernizing’ the Conservatives to be left-wing has helped them as much as remaining actual Conservatives might have done. And once again, an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats. An American conservative, knowing the legends of Margaret Thatcher, would gasp in outraged horror at Cameron’s free bus pass and eye test guarantee. Weisberg might twig Blue Labour, but he clearly doesn’t understand American conservatives at all – not least because he seems to think that American conservatives are the same thing as Republicans.

On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron’s focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as “The Image.” He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package.

Weisberg cannot make up his mind: he likes the Tory rebranding (yay, modernizing!), and yet he doesn’t like Cameron’s focus on the Tory rebranding. What, does he think that should have been understated? Does he really believe that a party that wants to get elected should understate the very aspect they reckon is likely to get them elected?

Oh, and also, unlike Nick Clegg whom Weisberg ‘laid eyes on’ once, during his several meetings with Cameron, he felt Cameron was inaccessible. Press access was, apparently, limited – limited to three meetings per random foreign journalist, I suppose. And even though Cameron ‘takes… questions seriously’ and is ‘relaxed, fluent and cogent’ when he speaks to voters, he is somehow less engaging than Nick ‘I Said That Already’ Clegg.

Oh, and also-also, Weisberg gets in a dig about the Contract With On America. Because obviously that worked out so poorly, what with six years of record prosperity following its implementation.

Finally, Weisberg moves on to Brown. Brown reminds Weisberg of a character in a novel who is half blind, angry, and unable to deal with other people. The character turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch [Brown] move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees’ lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I’m standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

A second-class carriage? My God, how did they stand it? Folks who ride in standard class are a totally different type of person from them!

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester’s sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Ah yes – for all his admiration of the British way of doing things, Weisberg still seems to believe that armed bodyguards should be ‘doing something’ about a perfectly legitimate heckler. My God, drag him out of there! Apparently Weisberg remains blissfully ignorant of how that sort of thing went down last time Labour did it. ‘It’s a shouty old man! Quick, beat him up!’ Contrast Weisberg’s attitude toward this random heckler with his description of, quite obviously, another heckler (emphasis mine):

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown’s speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

I guess hecklers become a lot less menacing when you know they’re tweedy academic types ‘not ordinarily given’ to heckling. Julian Borthwick has a mild case of the bad manners, rather than being a ‘possibly unhinged’ and working-class trade unionist as mentioned earlier. Weisberg, you snob.

Not to mention the fact that Weisberg’s section on Labour revolves almost entirely around Gordon Brown’s inability to act like a human, mixed with anecdotes about members of his audience and people who chastised Weisberg for getting his press pass from the Grauniad. Julian Borthwick gets more of a hearing than any criticism Weisberg might have of Labour’s policies. Presumably this is because he has no criticisms to offer. After all, Labour are practically the same thing as Democrats, and look how awesome they are!

If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country’s post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Ahahahahahaha… oh, sorry. America has a better chance to recover because it has more ability to raise taxes? I beg to differ. Not because Congress couldn’t jack up taxes – they could, obviously – but because America will recover better, not through taxes, but through the fact that its private sector, unlike Britain’s, thriveth mightily.

That’s Weisberg, then: huge admiration for British politics despite its useless and insulting party leaders, its voters who heckle and refuse to listen, and its dire prospects for the future. Yup, there’s loads of stuff there to admire.

And now, of course, I shall make the obligatory defence that, no, I don’t hate Britain and I’m not a racist against the British. There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment. Oddly, what I like best about Britain is what Weisberg seems to like least: its individuals. Most of the British I know are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. Weisberg’s respect is reserved only for the idea of Britain which exists inside his head. Individuals, where he mentions them at all, Weisberg mocks and derides.

Apart from Julian Borthwick, who presumably is spared this treatment because, at the museum, he had a copy of Waiting for Godot bulging from the pocket of his tweedy jacket.

  14 Responses to “American views of the UK election”

  1. “There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment.”

    To be fair, it provides us native-born Brits with that too!

  2. “an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats”

    What, is he colourblind??

  3. I followed the US elections a bit… No need to admire British politics but we should be grateful for the following reasons (at least):

    1) No mention of God. Grow up America.
    No racist reverends or end-times preacher endorsements (John Hagee). No witch exorcisms (Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal).

    2) Less conspiratorial hatred and negative campaigning.
    Clegg isn’t British enough ponders a UK newspaper. US elections featured: Obama sounds like Osama, his middle name is Hussein so he’s a Muslim/domestic terrorist.”Manchurian candidate”? That’s stuff from Congressmen not just nutters (eg Michelle Bachman).

    3) UK is more diverse.
    The electoral system isn’t proportional, but a wider range of parties/philosophies and candidates are on offer. UKIP, LibDem, Conservative and Labour. We moan of lack of choice but it’s nothing compared to the US. US is currently a 1-party state. You have to vote Democrat because most Republicans have lost their tiny reptilian minds.

    4) Efficient. Just a month, not a whole year (but we are a smaller population also). Less public/private money wasted on useless attack ads discrediting the entire process. Turnout was similarly sucky but you’d think there would be less apathy in a superpower than an ex-superpower.

    5) More substance.
    The TV debates were bad… but not as bad as Biden vs Palin. Lacking substance perhaps, but not like Obama and McCain talking about Joe the Plumber. Too much show business, but again, US politics is worse.

    • You know what, though? Never once did I even imply that US politics is somehow better than British, or that it has no flaws, or that its flaws are lesser flaws, or whatever. Never once. And I’m sort of weary of people making the assumption that, because I happen to be American, whenever I criticise Britain it’s because I think the US is superior.

      If it’s not, ‘Oh yeah? Well, the American immigration system is 100 times worse than ours!’ when I never said it wasn’t, it’s ‘Oh yeah? Well, American elections are 100 times worse than ours!’ when I never said they weren’t. Jesus.

      • I’m inclined to compare rather than just criticise. Sorry if I went to far, I’m no nationalist. I agree with most of your criticisms of the British elections and that the Slate article may be too rosy. I just thought that there are quite a few things about the elections which were good especially compared to other countries and times.

        Let’s take things for granted, that’s how we make progress but I do think there are good things about British politics. I’m not saying it’s the best. Perhaps the Scandinavians, Japanese or Koreans have a better political system. I don’t know enough to judge, I might look into it.

        • If you think voting Democrat is the only sane choice then you clearly have no idea what politics are like here. The vastness of America (it’s not a single state as you said, it’s fifty) and the decentralized nature of government (our executive and courts are entirely separate from our congress whose houses both actually have a purpose) have served to retard the growth of the police state which came on so rapidly in Britain. We actually don’t have cameras on every corner and absurdly strict gun laws despite our supposed lack of options.

          Sorry, unlike my sister, I’d love to argue in defense of American politics. It may be in bad shape right now, but it has far more protections built in for the individual. I like Britain as well, but I would never in a million years want to be ruled by your parliament.

          • I’m quite prepared to argue the merits of the US Constitution.

          • Damn right.

          • I didn’t have a go at the US constitution. A secular, written constitution if actually implemented is better than a tradition of a monarch who is the head of a state with an official religion.

            My point was only that it’s unfair to say the recent British general elections weren’t a more civilized affair than the recent US presidential elections.

            PS. Voting Republican in the *presidential* elections was an insane choice (I don’t know enough to comment on congress). Since then, that party has gone more and more towards insanity.

            PPS. Poor gun regulation is nothing to be proud of.

            PPPS. Fair point, Britain does have the highest number of CCTV cameras per capita, but it’s not literally a police state.

            Prison populations (per 100,000):
            US: 738 (highest)
            Russia: 611
            England/Wales: 148
            China: 118
            Germany: 95
            Japan: 62


          • First, I never said you had a go at the US Constitution. My remark about defending it was a response to Hrothgar about is, and is not, worthy of defence in the American political system.

            Second, I also never said that the recent British elections were less civilised than recent American ones. In fact, I made no comparison whatsoever except to say that voter turnout was similar.

            JB, I don’t have a problem with you criticising American elections for whatever defects you think fit, but I find your defensiveness in the face of stuff I never said to be tiresome in the extreme.

            It would indeed be unfair to say that British elections weren’t more civilised. Fortunately, nobody here has perpetrated this unfairness, so you can take off your armour and relinquish your pike.

          • Very well, I have taken my kit off.

  4. I forgot to add. US elections were more entertaining. Sex scandals (John Edwards), gay-bashing (generally), sobbing (Clinton), conspiracies (ACORN), economic crisis, etc. Compare that to expenses and bigotgate. No competition.

    • ACORN’s corruption is not just some crackpot conspiracy theory. They were actually caught in the act of voter fraud. What a surprise, eh? It appears as though you are echoing our media industry. I must warn you, it provides only a severely distorted image of the US and politics here.

      And for god’s sake, would you quit implying that Americans are homophobic gay-bashers? It’s simply not true.

      • Perhaps there was actual voter fraud, not just conspiracy, I’ll grant you that for the sake of argument. I don’t know enough about ACORN but there were plenty of other popular conspiracies like the birthers.

        American’s aren’t gay bashers but there is usually a bit of gay-bashing in US politics but it’s improving.

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