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Semiformalishmaybe

The Trouble with (British) Politics

Spent a bit of time looking over the three potential PMs in the upcoming parliamentary elections (6 May) in the UK. It's a bit weird, from an American perspective, to see the equivalent of our congressional and presidential elections in one unitary piece - while Clegg, Brown, and Cameron are all running as if they were running for president, the PM comes out of whosever party wins a majority of seats (or builds a coalition to do so). It would be amusing if Clegg, Brown, or Cameron were to lose their seat in the elections despite their party winning parliament - I imagine that's unlikely. So.. there are three axes for analysis:

  • Party policies/platform
  • PM-candidate personality/character
  • Factional shifts within each party.

The parties are surprisingly ill-defined right now - at past points in British politics there were substantial differences between the party - Margaret Thatcher had a very clear plan for the UK, to the point where her political programmes acquired a name (Thatcherism) and were publically discussed outside of her. Similarly, Labour was well understood as a Social Democratic party, and what's now the Liberal Democrats were the pre-merger parties with clear platforms (from a party that Americans might call moderate libertarians to other socialist splinter groups). At this point, the "New Labour" faction of Labour is dominant, Cameron's Conservatives are not by any stretch Thatcherite, and the LDs are enough at odds with each other that actual governance would likely either tear apart or transform the party. Plus, the LDs are bizarrely poised to make huge gains in government, a change almost as atraditional and dramatic as the recent changes under the magic formula governing the Swiss Federal Council.

The PM-would-bes (in order of likelihood, by my estimation):

  • David Cameron - leader of the Conservative Party of Great Britain - Cameron entered politics very early in life - coming from a family with ties to banking and titles, he went straight into politics after finishing school. Initially working as part of the Tory party, he eventually stood for election in 2000, leaving him well-positioned to take control of the party in 2005. His faction is uniquely centrist for a Conservative leader, and he has been scrubbing, polishing, and reworking the Tory image quite agressively since he came to leadership. This has required some dancing - anywhere that Labour has been weak, he has worked to restructure the Conservatives to be strong (a kind of contrarian form of politics) - for example, the UK has been hit by some damaging social problems, and David Cameron as leader of the opposition has ditched the traditional Thatcherite doctrine of "There is no society, there are only individuals", focusing quite heavily on social engineering and inculturation to fight rising youth crime. This would not be so odd (as Cameron is not a member of the Thatcherite faction) except that he has often cited her as inspirational for his entry into politics while taking a dramatically different (less-principled, more poll-driven) tack. Speaking of which, David Cameron is slicker than BP's Oil Spill - handsome, perfect poise, the man is made for politics (he is not a stateman, rather a politician par excellence - he's very light on principles but well schooled in PR). In a deck of cards, he is the British Noble
  • Nicholas Clegg - leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Great Britain - For a young party, the Lib Dems have always struggled with relevance in British politics. The circumstances of the merger that formed the party guaranteed it would not be a bit player, but it has never known significant power. Clegg comes from a pan-European family with strong international business ties. His education and early private-sector work have been just as international - he speaks a number of languages and has spent many years outside of Britain. He entered politics first by being elected to the European Parliament, spending much of his time both building the party and advocating liberal causes. In 2005 he entered the British Parliament and became leader of his party in 2007. Over his political career he has done much to define and build his party. In a deck of cards, he is the pan-European intellectual
  • Gordon Brown - Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party of Great Britain - The Labour party has been struggling to define itself since Tony Blair abandoned traditional Social Democracy for a Clintonesque "Third Way". Hand-selected to replace Blair in a time without leadership, Labour's continued control of parliament has been marked by quiet status-quo administration without clear direction - Brown may not have been the strong leader needed to sustain the party; he did nothing remarkably good or bad over his time (so far) as PM. Brown was born to a Scottish priest and began life as a gifted scholar focusing on history and politics. He worked as a professor for a time, then entered politics as a policy wonk. A quiet technocrat, his prominence in politics came mostly through relationships with elected officials. Never well-suited to nontechnical discussions of politics, his poor PR and lack of party leadership has brought his party to a place where they are broadly expected to lose the upcoming elections unless LD and Tories pull their vote evenly enough. In a deck of cards, he is the Scottish Geek
I was going to go into detail on their party platforms, but that'd take a long time (I was able to spill most of this off the top of my head; reviewing the platforms would take actual research, particularly as their platforms are not all that different.

Who deserves to win? Impressions:

  • David Cameron bugs me. While I've often expressed the "statesmen versus politician" discussion in neutral terms (because people might reasonably go with either depending on their conception of democracy), personally I strongly prefer statesmen - to the extent that I like democracy (very nuanced position which I won't go into), I prefer statesmen who have strong beliefs (even though I know some comprimise is necessary), strong visions for society, and who are quite comfortable laying out that vision for all to see - we in turn consider those visions, pick the one we like best, and possibly catch dreams of our own for how society should be and talk about them with everyone else. It's a rich environment, far above simple voting and one where we're encouraged towards intellectual enrichment and depth. I don't think pollsters and politicians make good leaders precisely because they're the antithesis of that - polls lack depth, they degrade public discourse, and they run the risk of us electing empty-headed people whose smile (rather than mind) is their biggest asset. This is what I see in David Cameron - no principle, very little solid beliefs except a belief in electoral victory, the perfect salesman. It's fine that the Tories have reimagined themselves, but they still should have some views rather than whatever wins them elections. Until recently, the Tories were a shoe-in to win this election, although I can't say they deserve it.
  • Nick Clegg is pretty likable but he makes me nervous - like most Brits are, I don't know if his party's coalition will hold very well if they gain power. He looks to be a scholar, and perhaps the fact that he's done more to define his party than Cameron or Brown have means that he's uniquely poised to decide the issue, although the British system is less sure than the American one on this front. I would not be disappointed were he to be elected, and think he may in fact be the best candidate. Apart from his stances on the issues, I like multinational intellectuals. I find him a bit hypocritical on some of his calls for systemic reform in British politics (as mentioned earlier) but it's not necessarily damning.
  • Gordon Brown is terribly unlikable, from his physical problems (partial blindness due to an ancient injury in school) to a number of gaffes. He's not really cut out for the high-profile role of PM he's had - he likes philosophy more than people. I sympathise (although even I could probably put on a better face for politics than he could). He's responded to difficult problems of political identity by generally ignoring them, neither continuing Blair's (imo disasterous and wrong) repositioning of Labour nor repudiating it. It feels he's not even trying. Pure technocracy doesn't work very well in a democracy - without attention to the divisive issues of "What should society be", the best-intentioned leaders with the best policies on matters where everyone agrees are both uninspiring and bound to lose. He has come to represent what a number of Americans have loudly proclaimed as a goal - a break from politics - and shown the world that that kind of thing just doesn't work in its full form. In sum, Gordon Brown misses (part of) the big picture, and isn't a suitable leader for Britain (or Labour) going forward.
Given who's running, I hope Clegg wins, but I think Brown would be a reasonable second choice. I imagine sitting down to tea with either Clegg or Brown would lead to enjoyable conversations about philosophy and life.

Oh, also it's hilarious watching my female cat trying to eat apples - her teeth arn't really suitable for it so she grumbles at me the whole time she works on it, licking it like a lollipop. Occasionally the other cat comes around to try to compete for what she clearly sees as the most wonderful food in the world, and he walks off with a disgusted look on his face when he smells the apple. Same thing with bananas, really.

Disappointed at my utter failure to find dinner, activity, or other companions this weekend, but it's really par for the course. Sigh.

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