- Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 April 2010 05:00
- Published on Wednesday, 28 April 2010 05:00
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It’s a difficult thing for me to explain my involvement in British politics. I am not a British citizen, and haven’t lived there for years. But nonetheless, every time, during most of the past thirty years, that has been a general election in the United Kingdom, somewhere in Britain I can be found going door to door, leafleting, or standing in front of the polls.
That may seem odd, but it all began when I was a student at the University of Edinburgh. I was actively involved with the Conservative Party or as they’re more commonly known, the Tories. Given my ancestry, which includes at least one revolutionary war militia officer, as well, as more distant connections to the famed Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, all I can say is that probably my forefathers wouldn’t have been that amused. The reference to Tories, in revolutionary war America, wasn’t a good one. However, times have changed, and they might have understood, if I had explained that several of my young friends from my student days went on to run for public office, and in year’s since, whenever they, or friends I have met since, were running for office, I couldn’t wait to help.
When I first got involved in a British campaign it was probably one of the momentous elections of the post war era. It was 1979 and there was a stark choice between a future that promised more dreary socialistic policies under Labour or one that was hopeful and free market oriented. It was, in a sense, a fight for the soul of Britain. Though I am a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, not everyone else was, and the election, while decisive, was nonetheless close. But it proved a good decision. Under Thatcher’s leadership, the country’s self esteem revived, the economy prospered, and internationally, Britain played a decisive role in helping the two great nuclear powers come to terms. Many forget that it was Margaret Thatcher who first visited Mikhail Gorbachev, had a long talk with him, and then called Ronald Reagan to tell him this was someone they could work with.
These days the issues are different. Though, they are surprisingly similar to those here in the U.S. There is a massive budget deficit, a recession, and continued fallout from a banking and mortgage crisis. Sound familiar?
The Conservatives promise more fiscal discipline and are quick to remind anyone who is listening that the lax regulation that brought on the economic crisis occurred when the current Prime Minister was in charge of the nation’s finances. The Labour Prime Minister, while still behind, tries to sound the call that all of Britain’s noted social programs are at risk from a Tory government. It’s a familiar line.
Then there is a third party. Something we don’t have in the U.S. It’s the Liberal/Democratic Party. They claim the political middle, though, frankly they’re more left than middle, and with a likable and charismatic leader, have gained some ground.
This year the campaigns in the U.K. took on a distinctly American flair. British campaigns have been getting glitzier and more expensive, and with, as one of Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet members once told me, more and more “American razamataz.” He wasn’t a fan of our campaigns. He thought they were too long and too expensive. The man had a point. This year, they took it to the next level and had the first ever national debate between the party leaders. Just like the McCain/Obama debates. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, and the Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, are well known figures. They are experienced debaters and made no mistakes during the face offs. However, in something of a surprise, the principal beneficiary of the debates was the Liberal. Most people don’t know Nick Clegg that well and he came across well. Some in the political establishment are now wishing that this was one American political import they hadn’t adopted.
However, what I like about British politics is surprisingly personal. The campaigns are local in character. The average constituency is about 65,000 people, a tenth the size of an American congressional district, and voters expect to meet the candidates. Or, at the very least, be contacted, personally, by each party. Also, the campaign is mercifully short. Save for a requirement that there be one every five years there is no set schedule. At an appropriate time, the Prime Minister goes to the Queen, asks for an election, and within four to six weeks, it’s all settled.
Then there is the British voter. Several times, when I’ve gone door to door, I’ve been told by the “householder” that there is no way they would ever vote Tory. But then, depending on the time of day, and more likely if the person is elderly, it’s not that uncommon to be told I look warm, or cold, whatever the weather, and be asked in for tea. I’ve gotten similar treatment when I’ve gone door-to-door here in our region. That may explain some of my affinity for British politics. It’s a lot like home.
The fellow I am helping out, Andrew Bingham wants to represent a district called the High Peak. He is an earnest, likable and hard working candidate. His district is in Derbyshire, one of the most attractive and charming parts of England. It includes one of Britain’s most well known national parks, as well as two cities, Glossop, an historic mill town, and the gorgeous Victorian era spa town, Buxton. Of course, there are also a host of charming small towns and villages. And make no mistake, there are some great pubs. The High Peak is a marginal district. It leans conservative, but since 1997, has been in Labour hands. This year, while the Tories stand a good chance, the outcome is by no means a given. With that in mind, I bought a good pair of walking shoes. I think I’m going to busy.