Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part II

Yesterday I wrote about the positive aspects that the Cameron-Clegg-led coalition might have on British (and perhaps international) politics in the short and long term. In this post I will focus on two of the more worrisome trends that have run through international elections in the last few years, including the most recent British one.

  • Televised posturing has spread to Britain.

This was to be the television election, and Nick Clegg was to change the face of British politics with his excellent debate performances. It was to be the triumph of the underdog thanks to the massive exposure he got from standing on stage as an equal to his Tory and Labour counterparts. The first election with televised debates had the potential to bring the most pressing questions of the day into many millions of living rooms and inspire a new generation to connect with politics as they do with Corrie.

But it was not to be – despite his pleasant way of getting to the point and an early surge in the polls, Clegg’s Lib Dems actually lost seats. And the debates at times veered toward a North American-style focus on style over substance (not that Gordon Brown wearing a purple tie isn’t newsworthy, of course).  Brown was expressly instructed not to use so many facts and statistics, presumably in favour of sweeping narratives. The trouble with television, of course, is the temptation to compete with things like Big Brother. The result is spin, manufactured “winners” and “losers” and very few real policies.

It is perhaps worth noting that the first televised debate in the US also resulted in the triumph of a charming and dapper fortysomething over a grizzled second in command – a coincidence?

Hopefully the success of Cameron (and even Brown) over Clegg in the election does not mean a trend toward more tales of woe from old immigrant women in Portsmouth and nurses in Newcastle.

  • Ignominious ousters seem now to be the norm.

Poor Gordon Brown. And, in the same vein, poor Paul Martin. No matter how ideologically opposed you might be to their policies, it’s hard not to appreciate the almost Greek tragedy that was their political careers: waiting as competent second-in-command to a charismatic Prime Minister for years only to succeed him in the midst of financial and/or political crisis and have minimal social and campaigning skills to fall back on. “Kamakaze” Brown  was even willing to self-immolate if it meant the continuation of his beloved party’s time in office; alas, it was not to be.

But what really bothers me is not that Mr. Brown, much like Mr. Martin, will continue on the lecture circuit for years wearing the same sad, defeatist expression he always has (and did throughout the campaign when he wasn’t wearing his “you should all be seriously afraid of the Tories” frown). I’m disappointed in the short attention span and minimal threshold for failure against which we measure our public figures these days. In the glory days of British politics, Gladstone and Disraeli battled each other for years. Disraeli was PM twice; Gladstone four times.  Their parties didn’t abandon them wholesale (or force them to tender their resignations) upon defeat, in a cloud of finger-pointing. And with each defeat, they got wiser, politically and interpersonally. Disraeli’s second ministry saw his party pass important bills in food safety, health care and foreign affairs. It also gave him a much larger number of seats than his party had previously had. Gladstone’s many years in opposition and in government shaped his convictions and strengthened his ability to pass significant legislation laying the groundwork for the major shifts toward redistributive wealth in British society in the early twentieth century.

In Canada, we haven’t tolerated a repeat PM since Trudeau, and had he not been permitted to run again after losing to Joe Clark, he would never have passed what was arguably his defining legislation, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In contrast, Stéphane Dion was given a few months to learn everything he could about being a leader and managing a political campaign, then unceremoniously shown the door after an unsurprising (but hardly devastating) loss to an incumbent PM. Should his replacement in the next elections fail to make any gains, he will also be turfed and sent back to Harvard. Why?

For all we tell children that failure is a good thing and necessary for growth, we have remarkably little tolerance for it in perhaps the most important decision-making arenas in the world. (The same is undoubtedly true in the business world, but this is not a post about CEOs.) Winning is everything, and younger, newer models who are “untainted” by a history of defeat are more desirable. Politics, once the sphere of crusty old men in suspenders and wigs, is now the domain of a new sort, though one that is certainly no more diverse, and very likely less so.  This brings me to my next trend to watch:

  • Career politicians are on the rise.

Diversity isn’t just a nebulous buzzword used by major corporations. When the aim of government is to effectively represent the population, diversity has to apply to gender, race, and ethnicity – yes – but also age, experience, and outlook. To return to a theme, Disraeli was a published novelist before becoming an MP. Gladstone trained as a lawyer. Today’s crop of leaders, from Obama to Cameron/Clegg to Harper, despite their obvious differences, all share a commonality: they have all been actively involved in politics from a young age, which undoubtedly led to their uncommonly young ascension to the uppermost echelons of power.

They are all clearly bright, capable, and talented. They all work hard. But they represent a very small faction of what government needs, in just the same way as a university can’t entirely be made up of philosophy professors: it needs administrators, and groundskeepers, and all manner of other academic backgrounds.

Part of the opportunity presented by a coalition government is that of building an inner circle that reflects a plethora of experiences, backgrounds, and viewpoints. In some ways, this is what Obama achieved by selecting Joe Biden as his running-mate: an older, ostensibly wiser counterpart to balance his thinking and reassure the electorate that they wouldn’t be getting a Cabinet of latte-swilling yuppies from the big city. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are both from upper-middle-class backgrounds, well educated at public (in Canada, private) schools and Oxbridge. (There was a hilarious article in the Times Online recently asking which of two is posher; do check it out to find out which of the two has a spy in the family, and which likes to read cheap paperbacks.)

And, at 43, they are both very young, as are many of their advisors. The Economist ran a fascinating piece recently that noted the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is younger than the man England will likely field as its primary goalkeeper at this month’s World Cup (no comment on which job I’d less like to have, in terms of national scrutiny and potential for eternal hatred). These men were certainly creative in getting around paying their dues, though I wonder what kind of precedent it sets for the future.  It seems oddly out of sync with the rest of the world that individuals with little breadth of experience outside of politics should succeed where their counterparts in the business worlds are needing to plan to increasingly varied careers of lateral job moves into different areas.

So all in all the election and subsequent coalition presents a balanced scorecard, and is certainly more interesting than the prospect of a party going back to the polls in a few months having accomplished nothing.

What do you think? Did you watch and enjoy the debates? Do you like hearing about nurses in Newcastle? Would you go and see Gordon Brown if he came to do a sad-faced political lecture in your area?

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2 Responses to Themes and Trends from the British Election: Part II

  1. Jeremy says:

    There’s certainly a lot to digest in this post. First of all I’m sorry I’ve been away from commenting for so long. Secondly I must say I prefer this – I’m hesitant to say hard boiled because you evince so much sympathy for people like Brown, Martin and Dion – political analysis to discussing the media and such. This at least makes sense to me while all this talk about semiotics and things like urban space just goes over my head. Elections I can understand.

    With regard to what you call “televised posturing”, I would suggest that the format and the candidates are not the problem. Mr. Brown spouted a lot of statistics. Good for him. That is a fine way of going about making your point and in a functioning democracy we should all be able to connect at that level. The problem lies with the critique always leveled by the inane babblers who discuss these things afterward in the media. *They* are the ones creating these narrative driven campaigns, not the voters, because as media they are desperate for a narrative. That is what results in people being concerned about what kind of tie the candidates wore, or what kind of relationship then-Senator Obama had with his mother, as opposed to actually thinking about who has the better ideas for running the government. The media, for all its insistence that it delivers the facts, is terrified of going anywhere near something as potentially controversial as real issues (for the most part) and likes to stay in the cushy realm of fake, meaningless controversies that they create. I know the Canadian media does not do this as much as the American media does with our plethora of 24-hour news networks. But if you are concerned as some are about “American style campaigns” coming to Britain, I suggest your fear is misplaced. Perhaps what you have is the arrival of American style campaign *coverage* coming to Britain. One of those is the chicken, and the other is the egg.

    Did I just spend all that time talking about media after I said I don’t like talking about media? What is wrong with me? Okay, on to the poor losers. I am of two minds on that one. On one hand, I think it’s not always a bad idea to get some fresh blood in there. I can’t imagine living in the days of Disraeli and Gladstone and having to pick between the same two leaders for decades. Alternatively, I agree with you that there seems to be a real taint associated with losing an election these days.

    In the United States, I would say that has developed far more among the Democratic party than among the Republicans. The Democrats ran William Jennings Bryant and lost behind him three elections in a row. In 1928, Al Smith lost to Hoover, but he was still a powerful contender for the 1932 nomination before he lost to fellow New Yorker Franklin Roosevelt. Then the Dems had two go-rounds with Adlai Stevenson, who was later rewarded for his efforts by being appointed as our UN delegate by Kennedy. These days it seems like Democrats can’t get away from defeated candidates fast enough. People mocked Al Gore and derided John Kerry for losing to the likes of Bush, completely forgetting that Gore won the popular vote and that Kerry came closer to defeating an incumbent in wartime than anyone, ever.

    The Republicans have been more forgiving. Reagan lost the 1976 nomination to Ford, then became the ’80 nominee. G.H-Dub Bush lost the ’80 nomination but became Vice President and later President. Bob Dole didn’t secure the nomination the first time he set out for it, either. I am not sure that kicking people to the curb for losing is such a good idea. For starters, it will make certain candidates who are “low tier” afraid to run. It may take more than one effort to make it to the top. Campaigns are a learning experience, and you can use one campaign to generate a core of support to help you in another campaign later on when you may have more stature, experience and resources. To wit: Bob Dole. If you make losing a capital offense, then nobody will run who is not already a well-established contender, thereby further entrenching the career politicians everyone loves to hate. I, like you, think being more forgiving might not be the end of the world even if our children don’t draw life lessons from it.

    I’ve probably on too long. Good post, Kathryn.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      Thank you, Jeremy. I agree that the coverage itself is a major part of the problem, and politicians are to a point caught up in the whole thing. Media coverage is most certainly to blame for our general perception of women and minority candidates (the few that exist) being less competent, less experienced, etc. – or alternatively pantsuit-wearing dragons who are traitors to their gender (that’s more women).

      But Brown didn’t spout nearly as many stats as he could – and Cameron and Clegg hardly any, though I’m sure they know them – in favour of telling these silly stories about how lack of NHS coverage affects people’s families and blah blah blah. They too have some share of the blame.

      And good point about the “low tier” candidates – realistically, especially in America, they have problems enough with perhaps not having the national airtime/funds/experience necessary for a successful campaign on the first try.

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