The Americanization of British Politics

A defense of television debates and celebrity endorsements


As a transmitter of a dangerous cultural virus, the American traveler in Britain is always prepared for that conversation; the one that blithely insists that it is his heritage, his vapid, corpulent, money-obsessed, politically immature society that is laying ruin to the world, especially the once great Britain. In fairness to our accusers, the accused rarely acquits himself well in such situations, preferring to grumble some Uncle Tomism about how he would sew a Canadian flag to his forehead if it wasn't physically impossible, or declaring, without solicitation, that I didn't vote for him

Just a few months ago, at a pub in a dismal London suburb, full of dismal and incoherent drunks, I was (yet again) harangued about America's poisonous influence on British politics. During his tenure as prime minister, it was considered a deep and very clever insult to accuse Tony Blair not just of being "Bush's poodle" but of acting presidential. It wasn't always clear that this accusation was backed by a working knowledge of how the American president governed, or a decent argument as to why this was so vastly inferior to the British model. The point was rather obvious: American politics were something to avoid, seeing as Americans all carry handguns and are denied hospital treatment when shot (which is inevitable, considering the number of armed lunatics stalking the streets). 

The chattering classes too quivered at the thought of politics over here extending its tentacles over there. A Labour MP of the old guard complained about New Labour's mucking with tradition in The Last Prime Minister—Being Honest About the UK Presidency. The cover of British journalist James Naughtie's book, The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency, featured Blair's head pasted over that of Ulysses S. Grant on the 50 dollar bill. When former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam lashed out at her former employer, she seethed that Blair made decisions "just like the president of the United States." (It is probably worth pointing out that Mowlam made these comments long before the Iraq War.) 

And so this heavy-breathing about America's baleful influence on British politics came to mind when watching last night's "presidential debate," the first of its kind, that pitted Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) against each other and an audience of pre-selected questioners. 

Despite being an almost exact replica of a presidential debate, some American observers, with fond memories of Alistair Cooke and Brideshead Revisited fluttering in their heads, judged the British version more academic, more dignified. Like an American college girl blubbering about sexy accents, The Washington Post television columnist Tom Shales, a writer with a deep affection for the cliché, explained that, "They all had impressive command of the language, but then, they're British." He referenced all those (unnamed) "qualities that made the British debate seem more dignified and civilized." All those debating points about ASBOs and street crime doubtless confounded Shales, who would spot a Scouse youth in a shell suit and presume he was on his way to a fancy dress party.

But minor differences aside, Brown and Cameron battled in soundbites, with the occasional cogent, off-script point. Also borrowed from the American debate was the annoying habit of thanking everyone for their service to King and Country, for otherwise voters would presume that the candidates hated the military, the healthcare service, and immigrants. David Cameron began his response to a question from a NHS nurse with this: "Can I thank you for your incredible service to the NHS. What it did for my family and my son, I will never forget. The dedication, the love. Thank you for all that you have done." Cameron's son, who suffered from epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died last year.

In response to a question from an army veteran, Brown ducked and weaved with an opening statement about how he reveres the troops and thanks them for their service. These very well may be genuine feelings of respect, but for those, like the ignorantly Anglophilic Shales, who operate under the assumption that British politics avoids the platitudinous in favor of the academic, last night's debate (and the candidacy of David Cameron) should permanently disabuse them.

Nor do the Brits avoid exploiting the American-style celebrity endorsement, an odd strategy for a country so deeply serious about the business of politics. As I pointed out earlier in the weekHarry Potter bazillionare J.K. Rowling took to the pages of the London Times to celebrate the British welfare state which, she said, the Cameronistas were eager to dismantle. Comedian Eddie Izzard produced a profoundly stupid and unfunny Labour endorsement video, described by Spectator writer David Blackburn as "nothing beyond morbid fear of Tories, Thatcher and money." And if that wasn't convincing enough, Foreign Secretary David Milliband posted a video warning voters that "it's the policies of George W. Bush that he [David Cameron] is promising."

While Labour was slinging mud at the Conservatives, and the Conservatives were heaping opprobrium upon the Labour legacy, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was doing his homework, preparing to mop the floor with his rivals in the Great Debate. According to a whole raft of polling data, Clegg was considered the debate winner by an impressive margin and his party saw a significant bump in the general polls after the debate, a result that, if it holds in the next few weeks, could lead Britain into a "hung parliament." Without the "Americanized" format of television debate, Clegg's position would be significantly weaker.

But while Clegg is a talented politician and an able debater, he is also one of those baffling "social liberals" indigenous to Western Europe. Upon taking leadership of the LibDems in 2007, Clegg declared that all the other parties offered was "environmentalism without substance, social justice without money, internationalism without Europe." And, in his very next sentence, declared, "The challenge for my party is clear and simple: to define a liberal alternative to the discredited politics of Big Government." Like much in the LibDem idea gallery, it strikes the American reader as confused, if not contradictory.

All three parties are also "going American" by calling for tax cuts—something very different from the elections in much of Western Europe and Scandinavia, where parties quibble about who will offer the smallest increases. Cameron has outlined a very clever plan for emulating Sweden's successful experiments with school choice (an idea attributable to the very smart Michael Gove). But those conservatives in the UK who are skeptical of the slippery Cameron, who once called himself the "heir to Blair" and seems desperate to dissociate the party from its free market past, are right to be so.

If I had my druthers and if it was possible to cast a vote May 6, I would still back the new, spineless Tories. And rather than attempt to narrow down just what is good about the rebranded Conservatives (answer: not much), I will crib from The Spectator's surprisingly full-throated endorsement of "the Tories' liberty agenda":

To abolish the hunting ban—as Mr Cameron has said he will support parliament in doing—will send a message not just about the injustice of the initial legislation but the Conservative belief in freedom. The abolition of identity cards, an expensive and pointless scheme, shows that the Conservatives aim to dismantle our surveillance state.

So I've tempered my previous ethusiasm. The Republicans can and should borrow from the Tories, of course, but the direction of political plagiarism is west to east (and left to right, with the Tory campaign owing more to Barack Obama than any recent Republican, to which the hiring of Anita Dunn attests). Cameron and the Tories are demanding "change" (sound familiar?) and conceding to the left that the Thatcher years, which saved Britain from economic and social disaster, were terribly cruel and "nasty," a victory for the tops-and-tails toffs and a shattering defeat for the working class. And incidentally, while British cancer survival rates are lower than those in Bulgaria (as Cameron claimed during the debate, bravely risking the wrath of the Bulgarian lobby), the Tories have no intention of scrapping the NHS, as advocated by nasty people like MEP Daniel Hannan. Do you hear us, swing voters!

While I would certainly appreciate a conservative movement in the United States that was as socially tolerant as the one advocated by our British cousins, I would advocate, as Peter Hitchens has done, cribbing from William Hague (a failure as a leader, but a clever theoretician) and not a malleable Tory Party leader who appears largely devoid of principle.

Michael C. Moynihan (mmoynihan@reason.com) is a senior editor of Reason magazine.