Great Britain is having a confusing parliamentary election. BBC World Service radio thought one way to cover a confusing election would be to invite a confused American to be confused about it.
So I went to the U.K. to shine the clear, cold light of ignorance upon the situation.
British politics used to be so simple even an American could understand. Since World War II most of the British electorate has voted for either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party—stick it to the toffs or stick it to the proles. The result was what the British call a “two and one-eighth party system”—Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrats (for people who can’t make up their minds and are proud of it).
But according to the most recent polls, Labour and Conservatives put together may not get two-thirds of the popular vote.
The prospect of a parliament where no party holds a majority, a “hung parliament,” is causing the British pundit class (which, like most British social classes, is larger and more obtrusive than any class of people we have in America except Walmart lard-asses) to call this “the most important election in a generation.”
More important than the election that swept Margaret Thatcher into office in 1979? More important the election that swept Winston Churchill out in 1945?
So I was told.
The election’s importance hinges upon the trap door of neither major party having a sane partner with which to form a coalition government. Labour or the Conservatives or both may fall into the cellar hole loony bin of British politics.
The traditional junior partner in a hung parliament were the Liberal Democrats. Britain, in fact, already had a hung parliament with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron ruling by the grace and favor of alliance with the Lib-Dems.
The Lib-Dems are heirs to the 19th-century Whigs like Earl Grey who abolished slavery in the British Empire (and brewed a nice cup of tea) and the great Liberal Party reformer (and luggage innovator of Gladstone bag fame) William Gladstone.
They are the party that’s fiscally conservative and socially liberal, the way all we Americans say we are before we sneak behind the curtain to vote for Sarah Palin or Bernie Sanders.
There hasn’t been a Liberal Prime Minister since 1922. And there might not be a Lib-Dem coalition for a long time either.
Opinion pollsters estimate the Lib-Dems will win only 24 seats on Thursday. (Personally, I’m doing my polling with the betting line at Ladbroke’s because that’s an opinion upon which people place their money instead of their mouths.)
There are 650 seats in the British Parliament. The next Prime Minister’s lucky number is 326. The bet on the Conservatives is that they’ll get 286 seats. The bet on Labour is 266. Neither 286 nor 266 plus 24 equals bupkis.
The U.K. is a having a problem with what British broadsheet newspapers call “Broken Promises, Disappointed Voters.”
To which an American replies, “Duh.”
And, until now, the British have responded to BPDV situations the way Americans do. When you’re disappointed in your vote for a major party that broke its promises, you vote for a different major party with new disappointments and other broken promises.
But British oaken stoicism has, as oaks will sometimes do, cracked its trunk like a bending plumber and dropped its big, mossy old branches in the tidy garden of political good sense.
The Tories are liars. They’ve been practicing a program of government austerity. It’s worked. Britain’s economy is the fastest growing in Europe. (Low bar, but…) The Conservatives, however, vowed that austerity meant “We’re all in this together.” The rich ain’t. The posh parts of London and Southeast England are farting through silk. The rest of the nation sucks a shrunken tit of social benefits.
The Lib-Dems are liars. They swore they’d roll back college tuition fees. (Already dirt cheap by American standards, but…)
Then the Tory Blutos in the governing coalition convinced the Lib-Dems to have a toga party instead, or something, and the fees went up. Plus the Lib-Dems were already considered to have their pants on fire for getting in bed with the Conservatives in what amounts to dog/mailman miscegenation.
Labour’s a liar. Labour vows increased spending with decreased debt, the public sector and the private sector both somehow growing rapidly at the same time, a more united Great Britain with a more independent Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, push me, pull you, liquor in the front, poker in the rear. Labour has made so many promises that they are pre-broken, shattered cups and saucers in the political china shop window.
The British fear for their social programs if the Conservatives win. They fear for their economy if Labour takes over. And they’ve given up on the Lib-Dems for partnering with the Conservatives in the coalition tango where the Tories led while the Lib-Dems danced backwards.
This leaves the British with their “other” parties, some of which display enough symptoms of otherness to qualify them for a diagnosis of Dissociative Disorder. There’s the Marine Le Pen-aping United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP); the Britain-hating Scottish National Party (SNP); the leafy, nutty, fruity Greens; various scruffs and flakes in Ulster, and something Welsh called Plaid Cymru, which I think was the name of an awful pudding I was once served in Cardiff.
When I got to London on March 28 the fashionable worry among those whose job it is to fuss (see Pundit class, above) was UKIP.
UKIP was founded in 1993 by proponents of British withdrawal from the European Union. Previous attempts to unify Europe—Napoleon, Hitler, Mongol hordes, etc.—were not without their downsides, so it wasn’t as if UKIP didn’t have a point. But, as with all pockets of political opinion, UKIP’s accumulated lint. Some was benign—Col. Blimps, Little Englanders, starry-eyed dreamers of a renewedly puissant Commonwealth where the sun would never set on postage stamps bearing the Queen’s visage. Some was not so benign—opponents of all immigration, xenophobes, vocal racists.
Fretting began in earnest when UKIP got the most votes in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament and won 24 out of 73 of Britain’s seats in that strange, un-transparent, vaguely and graspingly empowered legislative body.
This vote was thought to mean something dire about the nature of modern Britain. Though the likely meaning was that, considering the European Parliament, and considering Europe, wouldn’t you send them some people who loathed the thing and place?
I was told that to understand UKIP’s appeal I needed to leave the capital. The party’s leader, Nigel Farage, has himself admitted that UKIP’s perceived anti-foreign bias doesn’t play in a city where 37 percent of inhabitants were born outside the U.K. and are, well, foreigners.
I went to South Thanet, the run-down former seaside resort constituency including Ramsgate, Margate, and Broadstairs where Farage is vying for a seat in the real, as opposed to European, parliament.
I spent a damp, dank and windy Sunday there. Farage didn’t. This would be an odd thing for an American congressional candidate with an election looming—not being in his or her district kissing hands and shaking babies when voters are at home or in the pub because the weather stinks and there’s nothing else to do but be pestered by an office-seeker.
Perhaps British politicians think politics should be conducted upon a higher level—with a campaign, like UKIP’s, that transcends mere local concerns and pesters the whole nation.
Run-down former seaside resorts are where older English people go to retire and where younger and less well-off English people are stuck because London’s too expensive. South Thanet has the highest unemployment rate in the region. It has shops. They’re boarded-up. It has an airport. That’s not in use. And it has the oldest amusement park in Britain. Which is closed. But Dreamland is slated to reopen this summer, thanks to government funding. Again, an American is puzzled. Government-funded public transportation on a roller coaster? But it’s not my tax dollars.
I performed the obligatory radio journalist trope, asking random members of the electorate random questions about whom they’ll vote for, with results that were… random. Except that no one wanted to be recorded. Due to UKIP’s worrisome presence in the media mind, people had been interviewed speechless. They were tired of the questions and sick of the sight of journalists.
One random fellow with neck tattoos, smoking a cigarette in the doorway of a betting shop, said he didn’t vote but if he did he’d vote for Farage because of “them” who’d taken the jobs away. Though I didn’t see many jobs to take. Or many “them” either. South Thanet has a low percentage of immigrant residents.
I went to a neighborhood in Margate called Cliftonville, recently described by a UKIP candidate for the local council as “a no-go area when evening comes.” The neighborhood was filled with tall terraced homes that once were lodging houses until cheap flights to better beaches led to a collapse in trade. Now they’d been cut up into bargain-price flats. Cliftonville had a little peeling paint, a few mildly untidy gardens. Come with me to America to see a no-go area.
South Thanet, to an American, has an overpowering stink of opportunity. Cheap oceanfront property an hour and a half from London. But, as with the penalizations of British taxation, the profitabilities of British real estate are not mine to be decided.
The next day, back in London, I awoke to the news that Britain had no MPs of any party—Parliament had been dissolved.
Officially Parliament is dissolved when Prime Minister David Cameron asks the Queen to dissolve it and she says yes. Technically she could say, “Carry On Up the Kyber” (if she chose to speak in Cockney rhyming slang). But, officially again, there’s a new law requiring Parliament to be dissolved every five years no matter who says what. (The law was a Conservative sop to the Lib-Dems who go in for the good-government type things such as having people vote early and often.)
I arrived at Number 10 Downing along with a lot of other reporters in time to see Cameron either pointlessly going to see the Queen or pointlessly returning. A number of large black automobiles of British manufacture with darkened passenger windows went to and fro through the gates to the Prime Minister’s residence. We, like any good journalists these days, had to Google it. (Pointlessly returning.)
Then we heard—also via social media—that Nigel Farage was about to unveil UKIP’s campaign pledges in front of, un-coincidentally, Europe House, the London office of the European Union.
Only the press, not the general public, had been alerted. In London the general public has a tendency to demonstrate, un-congenially, in front of Nigel Farage.
Farage appeared on a flatbed truck with a multicultural group of supporters. There was a Sikh, a black woman, and a red-haired young lady whose face was a map of Ireland. Farage emphasized the reasonable aspects of UKIP’s platform: disentanglement from the fiscal and political woes of Europe, libertarian approach to regulatory issues, greater attention to defense, Lib-Dem-like spending of more money on good things and less on bad.
Critics might say he was a man who’d made a bad omlette and was trying to get voters to taste only the palatable parts. “No, no don’t have that bit, it’s old goat meat. No, no, not that bit, it’s poisonous toadstool. Have a little bite of this, it’s fine old English stilton with just a little brains from a mad cow mixed in.”
I left for home on April 2 and by the time I got back to London on April 20 the fretting had shifted completely. Never mind that the poll numbers hadn’t budged.
Gone was the fear of a Tory/UKIP stick-it-to-the-proles/stick-it-to-the-wogs coalition. Came now the fear of a Labour/SNP “support and supply” deal sticking it to everyone.
The Scottish National Party was a big story in America during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. When the Scotts said no thanks to being a tartan 13 colonies with haggis instead of a bald eagle, the SNP disappeared from U.S. news. But it didn’t disappear.
The Scots voted against succession, then signed up in droves with the party that was for it. By membership, the SNP is now the third-largest party in Great Britain.
For this kind of behavior by the electorate Poly Sci provides no explanation. But I happen to have one at my house.
The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats opposed Scottish independence and so did the majority of Scots, and yet… My wife may not want my 11-year-old son to play tackle football but if the coach told her our boy is too small, too slow, and too uncoordinated to play tackle football, God help that coach.
The SNP could go from 6 to more than 50 seats in the British parliament, most of those seats taken from the long-entrenched Scottish Labour Party.
Scottish nationalists, who don’t want to be part of Great Britain, may play a key part in how Great Britain is governed even though the point of Scottish nationalism is not to be governed by Great Britain.
Parkhead, in the East end of Glasgow, is one of the poorest areas in the U.K., and looks it—pub, betting shop, pub, betting shop, pub, pub. Broken windows abounded. Broken lives as well. The first thing I saw was a dodgey-looking used furniture monger in heated argument with a drugged-up man about a glass-topped coffee table. Which table, it may be presumed, was “lost” or “found” or fell off the back of a truck.
But in the midst of this was a storefront oasis of enthusiasm, good cheer, and warm welcome—the campaign office of SNP parliamentary candidate Natalie McGarry. If you stayed for more than two minutes a plate of scones and a cup of tea was thrust into your hands. Eight or a dozen people, young and old, busy with cooperative work, convivial chat, and campaign clutter were getting ready to go out and canvass. It put the social in socialism.
Of course I’ve seen such joie de guerre before, amongst the “Clean for Gene” and the acolytes of John Anderson, Ralph Nader, Howard Dean, etc. It usually ends in tears before bedtime. But McGarry is odds-on to win even though her Scottish Labour Party opponent won the seat with a majority of 11,840 in 2010.
McGarry was forthcoming, thoughtful, endearing, earnest, appealing, friendly and very left-wing. The SNP believes Labour is too conservative although, in America, Elizabeth Warren would consider Labour to be too southpaw by half. There’s concern in the British business community that the SNP would push Labour to do things like take over BP and nationalize banks.
Scotland is a sort of landside South Thanet where the stench of opportunity is not quite so strong. I went to Paisley where another election battle was on—incumbent Labour Shadow Foreign Minister Douglas Alexander vs. 20-year-old SNP candidate Mhari Black, and if the polls speak truth she’s going to hand the seasoned pro his hat. But while I was in Paisley could I find a scarf for my wife, a shawl for my mother-in-law, a kerchief for my children or a necktie for myself in that eponymous and noble pattern? Scotland doesn’t need to nationalize banks, it needs Jos. A. Banks.
Whither Great Britain?
The consensus, universal and permanent until at least Friday morning, is that Britain has abandoned its centuries-old duopoly in favor of a multi-party polity.
Some think this will be jolly—giving a voice to the voiceless. Although, to my ears, they’re plenty noisy already.
Others are concerned that the British political system will go all Italian on itself, with a new prime minister every 15 minutes.
And others yet are anxious about the swing-vote power of SNP reopening the independence referendum question and then who’ll get off “Scot-free” next? Wales? Northern Ireland? Cornwall? Yorkshire? Isle of Wight? Stonehenge? Great Britain could wind up as the United Kingdom of the Queen and her corgis.
I’ll make only one prediction. On May 8 there will be a variety of parliamentary politicians quoting the immortal American campaign strategist Dick Tuck: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”