Thou Shalt Not Covet the British Election

Article excerpt

The political separation between the United States and Great Britain is more than 200 years old but in some aspects the political systems of two countries are moving closer together. The May 1 general election of members of Parliament is an opportunity for those Americans advocating campaign reform to see some of their proposals in action, along with an opportunity for the British to experience what has been called the Americanization of their politics.

Some features of the British campaign are familiar to Americans. The Labor Party, which by every indication will sweep the election overturning 18 years of Conservative Party control of the government, has learned much from observing campaigns in the United States. Slick, media savvy Tony Blair, leader of the Labor Party or New Labor as it prefers to call itself, is not a clone of Bill Clinton but is, at least, a cousin. Blair has reinvented his party, moving it toward the center of the political spectrum and jettisoning the more extreme goals of the old left such as unilateral disarmament that kept the Laborites out of power for a generation.

Prime Minister John Major is easily cast in the role of George Bush: a slightly hapless figure living in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher as Bush lived in Ronald Reagan's trying to convince voters that his is the party of change. Major can cling to the hope that he will confound the predictions as he did in the last election in 1992 coming back with a narrow upset victory. But since that surprising comeback, Major has watched his party die a slow death in elections to fill vacancies and in polls as he held out calling for an election of the entire Parliament for as long as possible. When Major dissolved the parliament and called for an election within six weeks, he started a campaign that seems remarkable on both sides of the Atlantic. For many Americans, who can watch (if they can face it) "Road to White House 2000" on C-Span, the short campaign is the Holy Grail. The six-week campaign is, however, one of the longest in England this century - to the dismay of much of the British public used to three-week campaigns. But in fact a six-week or three-week campaign is an illusion that too many Americans fall for. Campaigning in Britain never really begins or ends. It continues day after day as the parties face each other across Parliament snarling and sniping at each other as the springs of the party organizations wind tighter and tighter waiting for a chance to strike. With rare exceptions, such as condemnation of terrorism, political parties in Britain never agree on anything and never work together in a nonpartisan manner. Perhaps elections in America could or should be shorter, but the British system offers nothing to the debate. …