British Elections: A Change in and for History


After 13 years of uninterrupted Labour government, led by two different prime ministers, first Tony Blair, subsequently replaced by the partner-rival Gordon Brown, England goes to vote again to elect the new tenant of Downing Street, n°10. Before the 15th of April, date of the first TV debate in the history of British elections, everyone, or almost everyone influenced by the oscillating polls would expect a change of administration. The prevailing idea was that the Conservatives would be back to power with David Cameron, their new-look leader. Gordon Brown should actually be simply waiting for defeat, not that he is resigned, though. The Scottish prime minister has not got the talent to manage show-politics, but he keeps the stubbornness and the grit he developed as a rugby player when he was younger.

Gordon Brown is not Churchill, but he has obtained some great achievements, too. As a Chancellor, he animated the years of Britain’s economic miracle and, as a prime minister, he had a leading role in administrating the financial crisis. Now that this phenomenon is not in its acute phase anymore, many British people do reckon it is time to change the guard in Downing Street.

Another situation. Other people. Thirteen years of government, first with Tony Blair (with whom he did not actually get along, but they shared the fatal mistake of taking part in the Iraqi war) and then alone, by himself. Gordon Brown was on the top of England. Those years weigh on his shoulders like a cross and we did not even mention his bad temper and his actual inability to communicate, but he is a man of scrum and rugby. Pure substance, no glittering tinsel.

Yes, it has to be admitted that Gordon Brown’s image received a very hard blow, as proven by the sensation raised by his recent gaffe with a retired woman from Rochdale. Mrs. Gillian Duffy, old-time Labour constituent, queried him about important social issues: economy and immigrants, and that the prime minister defined “bigot” while talking to his collaborators. He was not aware that he was still on air on BBC radio 2, though. Such an inglorious gaffe might make him lose many precious votes, it might even be fatal. Still, there is an aspect to consider: it is again evident how England embodies the modern sense of democracy. It is that sense of pragmatism, which is missing in any other country in the world, the force which puts the beholders of the powers under a constant light: their life is continuously examined and valued and even a gaffe can tip the balance by either sides.

The 15th of April was a real turning point for England. Not only for what concerns the elections or the campaign behind them, but also – and mainly – for the recent political history of Britain. After long and exhausting negotiations, TV confrontations were launched. Not some face-to-face confrontation, but American-style shows, where the candidates face the camera and answer questions asked by the conductor. This unveiled, even in the British political world, the importance of theatrical attitudes (not meant as arts comedy), as a place where British people, who witness on stage the projection of their cultural, social and political identity, reflect their cases. London is a great theater itself. I cannot make an actual list of all the spectacles that animated its streets in recent times, but we all have to agree on saying that British people are great actors, like the love of Italians for masks in the XVIII century. No masks on today’s political limelight though, where the biggest reliability and seriousness are required at the top moment of the democratic life of the country, in that country which invented, externalized and shaped democracy and still exercises it in the best way. A real show has occurred, though and it has shocked the programs.

As the theater demands, a surprise has come. First of all, the protagonists were more than two, the current owner of the title and the challenger, the labour Gordon Brown and the conservator David Cameron. The third one, the liberal-democratic Nick Clegg, certainly not a stranger, but definitely not as popular as his opponents, has blown up all plans. Brown, the old one (just in relation with the experience obviously, he is not even sixty years old), was not like Jesus Christ crucified between the two thieves, as Cameron and Clegg, although they are not kids anymore (both 43 years old), would stand out for their youth and the immaculateness of those who never ran a nation. Anyway, their candid, dynamic and shiny image, which would perfectly hide their smart inexperience, would underline the character of the prime minister, burdened not by the life years, but by the government ones. He would unavoidably embody the past, with its scandals and corridor intrigues, its crisis and delusion, its frequent mediocrity moments; while the two youngsters would tickle the instinct which suggests to deny a worn-out power, an authority tired by time and related vices. It makes no sense – I know – but not just a few outsiders, which means foreigners, vote-less spectators, expressed their favor for Gordon Brown. The same opinion was shared by not a few British economists, especially when, during the third TV debate in Birmingham, the topic was the actual economy. Opinion polls are all unfavorable to Brown and the main newspapers, even the left-ish ones, actually reject him. This is what matters, before the final result.

After the TV confrontations, the polls radically changed. Basically, the main candidates share the virtual votes: one third each. David Cameron is still the favorite as he is attributed a “bigger” third, but he can hardly hope for an absolute majority, as was foreseen at the beginning. The Labour discontents, willing to vote for the Conservators, may have found a refuge in liberal-democratics, ideally closer to them. On the contrary, the Labour party insistently says that voting for lib-dems is just like voting for conservators, as only the Labour can prevent them from getting back to the government.

Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg share the same amount of votes, but Brown often slips to the third place. If this happened even with the real votes, there would be a massive downgrading of the Labour party. Liberal-democratics led by Clegg can be considered as the descendants of those liberals who ran England at the beginning of the XX century.

David Lloyd George was the last liberal prime minister (1916 – 1922), then the Labour party took over and became the main opponent of the Conservative one. In spite of such a zig-zag path, should the lib-dems get more votes than the Labour, we could be talking about a liberal revenge after one hundred years. The seduction operated by young Clegg had an extraordinary effect. With Russian and Dutch ancestries, polyglot, with a long academic experience on the Continent, he does not correspond to the typical caricature portrait of a freaky and snob liberal-democratic politician. He is a young centrist leader, smart and able to fish a little on the left and a little on the right, with an ecological imprint. He promotes a new vibe. Not too new, though. He shares conservative liberalism, at least partly and he promotes social protection and public services. He is a passionate Europeanist, too.

In spite of the numerical outcome of suffrages, liberal-democratics will not have more seats than the Labour anyway, and this is what really matters in the short-term.

The British election sytem (single-member-majoritarian) is not symmetrical in the relation between votes and the number of deputies. With a well distributed electorate it is possible to have more representatives in parliament than those who gathered more votes, but these were unequally distributed among several constituencies. With an electorate which is currently split into three, we will get to a Parliament without an absolute majority. In order to find government coalitions (like Berlin and Rome) in London we have to walk back in time to 1974. At the time, it did not result to be a good deal and the experiment did not last long. Labour and liberal-democratics seem to be the most likely allies. The most logical ones. With or without Brown? Who will be the prime minister? David Cameron, the aristocratic conservator who wishes for a “radical change” and wants to “give the people the power back”, still stays the favorite. If he manages to get close to an absolute majority, he may be able to appeal to a cosmos of small parties, but the challenge among three contenders is difficult and its result is still foggy and uncertain.