A Short Guide to the British general elections — for Americans

Americans may just about have heard that Britain is to go to the polls to elect a new parliament in less than 100 days. Much about British politics is extremely obtuse and muddling, even to Brits. So here’s a short guide that may help pierce the fog.

First of all, “Britain” in this case means the United Kingdom which means England, Scotland (yes, still), Wales and Northern Ireland. It does not mean “England”. This isn’t meant to be patronizing: until I became a British diplomat, I didn’t know that the name United Kingdom meant “Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland”. It’s confusing.

There is currently a coalition in power in Britain, made up of the Conservatives (“Tories”) and Liberal Democrats. Coalitions are very unusual in Britain, thanks to an electoral system which favors the already-large parties over the small. The Prime Minister David Cameron is a Conservative (large “C”). Roughly speaking, a typical British Conservative equates in US terms to a right-wing Democrat or an almost extinct kind of left-wing Republican. They are soft on social issues like gay rights, and conservative (small “c”) on economic issues. This government has aggressively pursued budget cuts and austerity. It talks a lot about things like opportunity and equality but pursues policies that favor big business and punish the vulnerable by cutting services to the disabled, old, sick etc..

The Conservatives may win the next election nevertheless, mainly because they may get enough parliamentary seats to govern even if they enjoy less support than before (another paradox of the electoral system). But also the main opposition party, Labour, has made little capital from the government’s mistakes. Labour is still recovering from the vicious post-Blair hangover which poisoned the image of a generation of party hacks, including its leader, Ed Miliband, and confused a lot of Labour’s dwindling membership about what the party actually stands for. “Red Ed” as the right-wing papers call him seems to be tilting back to the Labour party of old pre-Blairite days when the Labour party actually believed in socialism i.e. he talks a lot about stopping austerity, helping the vulnerable and taxing the rich.

The reality is however that whichever of these major parties wins, nothing much will change. Thanks to a large budget deficit, Labour will have very little money with which to fulfill any promises of extra spending. If they stay in power, the Conservatives will carry on with austerity. The words will change, but the average citizen will notice little. This is unsurprising when you consider that both parties are headed by leaders who are the quintessence of the term “professional politician”. Both Londoners, neither Cameron nor Miliband has ever worked outside politics. They both speak in the empty rhetorical phrases of the contemporary political argot, so bland that not one word of it sticks in the memory, and thus in the craw. Miliband is the son of a Marxist; Cameron went to Britain’s most exclusive and famous private school, Eton. But such differences signify little. They really sound very similar.

What passes for political excitement in Britain is mostly stimulated by the rise of a few fringe parties, and in particular the UK Independence Party, or UKIP (pronounced You-Kip). It is led by Nigel Farage, who is routinely called “blokish” in the British press. This is supposed to mean that Farage is more of a “regular guy” than, say, Cameron or Miliband, who are presented as London elitists. Farage achieves this effect by drinking pints of beer in pubs and smoking, pastimes in which most professional politicians no longer indulge — at least in public. But the “blokishness” is a bit misleading. Farage is a former stock broker who was educated at another large private school — in London. He is also a Member of the European Parliament, whose pay, allowances and privileges he has unashamedly accepted while denouncing the very institution which provided them.

In some of the US press, you may see UKIP described as “populist” or “anti-politics” and part of an emerging trend across Europe. These terms obscure fundamental differences from other so-called “populist” European parties, such as Spain’s Podemos or Greece’s Syriza (both left-wing, anti-austerity but not anti-immigration, at least not yet) or — more like UKIP and worryingly popular — France’s National Front. UKIP’s main policy proposal is to stop immigration which has risen considerably in recent years thanks to the success of the British economy compared to the rest of the European Union, which says more about the dismal state of most continental economies than the health of Britain’s. Farage continually repeats that his party is not racist and has lots of policies other than merely stopping immigration, the main one being that Britain should leave the EU. However, Farage’s party members regularly undermine his claims by posting racist statements on social media and disagreeing about all other policies. Nevertheless, thanks to its anti-immigrant emphasis, UKIP is expected to do well in the elections: depressingly few voices were heard in protest when Britain refused to pay for patrols to rescue drowning migrants in the Mediterranean. But how well UKIP will do is not clear and opinion polls are pretty volatile. If UKIP is successful in parliamentary constituencies (akin to Congressional districts) which traditionally vote Tory, it might even help Labour. There is endless speculation about this in the British press.

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats, currently in government with the Conservatives, are expected to do badly, mainly because they have slavishly gone along with more or less all the unpopular policies, such as budget cuts, that the Conservatives enacted, while protesting otherwise at the time. Their credibility has suffered from this experience. Another party that may win a seat or two, but will not upset the general outcome, is the Green Party. Like UKIP, the Greens have struggled to broaden their manifesto beyond their central concerns about the environment and sustainability. If they do well, this will have to change. Meanwhile, in Scotland, support for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has grown, despite the rejection of their central demand for Scottish independence at the recent referendum. If this upswing is borne out at the election, party politics may get more complicated still in a resulting Parliament in London, where the SNP will happily take their seats and vote on laws affecting the rest of the country, despite their disagreement with the fundamental constitutional premise of the legislature. Any SNP success is bad for Labour, because it depends on Scottish MPs to get a majority in Parliament, while the Conservatives have not a single Scottish MP, which partly explains why many Scots have considered independence.

So, what does this all mean for the future in Britain? American commentators will probably play up the “collapse” of traditional party politics or the rise of the far right (but note that there is little evidence of anti-Semitism even among UKIP, although they are less restrained in their prejudice against, for instance, Romanians). In all likelihood, little will change, despite the appearance of a more complicated political landscape. In terms of what really matters, economic inequality will continue to worsen for there is little chance that any party, including Labour, will institute the kind of aggressively progressive wealth taxation that might, per Piketty, make a dent on this trend. The institutional and economic obstacles will remain insurmountable, not least the power of “the markets” to devalue the pound, threaten to withdraw investment, or refuse to buy British debt etc.. All parties, to their credit, support carbon reduction policies which, in line with the rest of the EU, put the US to shame for its relative inaction. But still Britain’s emissions are among the highest per capita in the world. As in America, there’s lots of discussion about healthcare and education, with the usual debates about market or state solutions (starting with a bias towards the latter), but little radical imagination.

As for foreign policy, the big question is Britain’s membership of the EU. The Conservatives have promised to hold a referendum after the elections about whether Britain should remain in the EU. Among Conservative “back benches” (i.e. ordinary members of Parliament who are not government ministers) there is a long tradition of “Euro-scepticism” which encompasses not only scepticism about the Euro currency but about the Euro-project itself i.e. the EU which they feel has taken too many powers from London, leaving Britain constrained in how it chooses to govern itself. If the Conservatives win the general elections, the EU question will be a big issue for Cameron to contend with. It’s said the controversy might break his party, but it probably won’t: its members are too interested in staying in power, and most British people don’t really care that much about the EU, whatever Murdoch’s press may say. It’s not impossible however that the “No’s” might win a referendum which in theory would mean the remarkable prospect of Britain leaving the EU. This sounds seismic, but in truth and in terms of real life things, a Britain outside the EU would negotiate very good terms to trade with the EU or for its nationals to pass through EU borders, much as Norway or Switzerland have for instance. But a “Brexit” remains unlikely. No one, except the Greens, talks about leaving NATO.

Since the days of the nauseating Blair-Bush bromance and America’s subsequent piecemeal withdrawal from the Middle East, Britain looks less to the US than it did, excepting the usual sentimental tropes about the ‘special relationship’ whenever the Prime Minister or a Royal visits the US, which are notably unreciprocated on the American side (for the US now has many “special” relationships). Britain’s concerns today seem more inward or at least regional and European although its post-imperial ambitions still tend to the grandiose — it was the Brits along with the French who led a reluctant US into intervention in Libya, for instance, knowing full well they could not pull it off without the Americans. The Iraq war has left a deep shadow over Britain’s foreign policy with much confusion and debate over intervention in places like Syria, where Britain’s parliament rejected military involvement after Assad’s gas attacks in Damascus.

Britain still sees itself as a kind of mini global power, with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council (where I once served), and nuclear missiles (which are sort of bought/leased from the U.S.). The most presumptuous Brits like to pretend that Britain is “Greece” to America’s “Rome”, in other words that they speak post-imperial wisdom into the ear of the imperial thug. I have never heard anyone in the State Department describe the relationship in this way. Back in the real world, Britain is building no less than two large aircraft carriers even though it can’t afford to put any aircraft on the one it’s got. You might take this as symbolic.

There remains much pride in Britain’s special forces, royal family, chocolate biscuits, fashion designers etc.. In economic or social terms however, there is little to distinguish Britain from any other late-capitalist economy — steadily declining workers’ rights, multiplying petty regulations on things like garbage or annoying people, a fragmented economy with less manufacturing and more “services”, especially for the rich, a culture dominated by the typical obsessions with celebrities, chefs and sports and a sort of generalized ‘what is it all for?’ ennui, manifested in vapid modern art, whiny Indy music or drugged-up EDM, dark TV murder dramas etc.. Britain’s unstoppable submergence into the blandness of global culture continues unabated: James Bond now markets Omega watches and Heineken. But for their occasional antiquity, London’s streets ever more closely resemble those of other European cities: the variety of its nationalities a joy; the uniformity of their cappucino-and-Uniqlo tastes a dispiriting bore. And everywhere the heads-down, visible but un-noticed army of the underpaid and often illegal.

As in other such places, the general elections and their accompanying babble and rancour help enforce the impression that who is in government matters. It does, a little, but not very much.

New York, January 2015

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