The Reason We Are Not Looking to the National Election Is That We No Longer Look to the Nation State

By Worsthorne, Peregrine | The Spectator, April 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Reason We Are Not Looking to the National Election Is That We No Longer Look to the Nation State


Worsthorne, Peregrine, The Spectator


Nation state elections are not as important as they were in the old days because, with one exception, nation states are not as important. Naturally nation state politicians don't see it this way because, from their personal point of view, nation states, and the elections which determine who will be in charge of them, remain very important, making all the difference between the fulfilments of office and the frustrations of opposition. Not that the fulfilments of ministerial office are quite as uniquely pleasing as they used to be when Britannia ruled the waves; indeed probably rather less so than those enjoyed nowadays by the chairman of a large multinational corporation. Whereas in the past the chancelleries of the world had good cause to tremble at a cross word from Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, today it is probably the mighty Murdoch empire's ill-will which gives them most cause for consternation. Nevertheless it is still something to be a British minister of the crown and still something to be an MP, particularly if you have no other way of earning an honest or even a dishonest -- living.

From the point of view of the ordinary citizen, however, nation states are not at all what they were. Take the fundamental matter of securing the nation from external or internal aggression. Before the second world war both responsibilities rested firmly with Westminster. So plainly it was vitally important who was in charge there. Ever since the war, it has become less important and been seen, slowly but surely, to be less so. Britain alone could have averted the Nazi German menace, if it had elected a government less appeasement-minded. But at no point could Britain alone have averted the Soviet communist menace, whatever government it elected. Even securing her oil supplies against an Arab dictator became beyond the power of Britain alone.

The Falkland Islands were another matter. Britain on her own was just about able to recover them and for that purpose it obviously did matter which party was in power at Westminster. It was also important during the Cold War to return a proAmerican government rather than an antiAmerican one; but not all that important since no British party with any chance of winning an election was ever proposing to take Britain out of Nato. Even in the war against the IRA - the United Kingdom's prime internal security challenge - Washington has come to matter far more than Westminster. If a new American president decided to bring pressure to bear on Dublin, the IRA could be beaten in weeks, not months. No conceivable change of government at Westminster next month will make that much difference.

In these circumstances the only elections that have really mattered since the war are those that take place every four years in the United States, and in these the British electorate, in its wisdom, most certainly does take an interest, less now than during the Cold War but still very great. More British people, I would guess, take time off to follow the news of American general elections than to follow the news of British elections. The habit started in 1944 when President Roosevelt ran for his fourth term. It is the first election of any kind I can remember taking a burning interest in, following my parents' example. They certainly wanted to see British voters re-elect Winston Churchill in 1945, but not nearly as fervently as they wanted to see the American voters re-elect FDR in 1944. …

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