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Britain's spot of Tea Party

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Here is a riddle: What would the Tea Party movement look like if it were British, privately educated and had once worked as a ski instructor in Austria?

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The answer: It would look like Nick Clegg, leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party -- and possibly the beneficiary of the biggest revolution among British voters in decades. For those who don't follow these things, the Liberal Democrats are Britain's historically insignificant third party. In its current incarnation, the Liberal Democrats date from the late 1980s, when the Labor Party was a near-Marxist monolith, the Tories were the party of Margaret Thatcher, and there was a lot of space in between.

Since then, the Lib Dems have taken some odd turns, sometimes championing quirky local causes, sometimes floating to the left or the right of the political spectrum, often leaving the center ground that they once claimed for their own. Now, after years of drift, Clegg has suddenly found for the party a position that works. Instead of ideology, he offers an option: If you are sick of Labor, if you can't bring yourself to vote Conservative, if you are bored of the two-party system itself -- then vote for me.

Of course he doesn't quite put it that way, but that seems to be the message voters got from his performance this month in the first-ever televised campaign debate among British party leaders. This event was a mini-revolution in itself: Until this election, British politicians did not hold debates in the American style -- standing behind lecterns, arguing about selected issues in front of a selected audience -- because tradition dictated that important debates took place in Parliament. In the past few years, however, the significance of Parliament has waned. A new generation of voters doesn't understand its rules and conventions, while the importance of staged television appearances has been growing. And Clegg, it turns out, is very, very good at staged television appearances.

What makes him "good," in part, is his unstudied manner; with nothing to lose, he just seems more relaxed than his opponents. He also breaks taboos (he isn't much bothered about high levels of immigration, for example). He might even be attractive because of his background: Clegg's mother is Dutch, his wife is Spanish and his children are bilingual. Maybe, just maybe, British voters are slowly becoming more "European" than their politicians think.

Or maybe they are simply sick of the Labor Party that has been running Britain since 1997 and can't quite convince themselves that David Cameron, the "modernizing" Tory leader, is really as "modern" as he says. Clearly they are worn out by the parliamentary-expenses scandals that hit both of the main parties equally hard. No doubt they want to protest some politics in general, and the bad economy in particular. Whatever the reason, Clegg's ratings soared after that first debate, and in some polls he now comes out ahead of Labor.

This was amusing at first ("Clegg who?"). But as Election Day draws nearer, the mainstream parties have ceased to be amused. If current poll numbers hold until the May 6 election, the Labor Party could finish third in the popular vote but still have the most seats in Parliament. The Tories could win the popular vote but not have enough of a parliamentary majority to run the country. The Lib Dems could form a coalition with either party, but Clegg has said that his price will be a new British voting system.

This would mean, for the British, an unthinkable, revolutionary change. Most European countries vote according to rules of proportional representation, as a result of which their parliaments contain several parties and the government is often a coalition. Britain, like the United States, has "first past the post" voting: a two-party system and, usually, a one-party government -- albeit Britain's has far fewer checks and balances than that of the United States.

Supposedly, the ordinary voter -- the mythical "man on the Clapham omnibus" -- cherishes this uniquely British political system, often cheerfully referred to as "our elected dictatorship." Working on that assumption, the Conservative and Labor parties have been issuing dark pleas to voters: This could be the last general election to be held under those very British rules; this could be the end of politics as we know it; and so on.

Maybe these dire threats will win back voters by the end of next week. But at the moment, it seems that the man on the Clapham omnibus, like his Tea-Partying colleagues across the Atlantic, is perfectly happy to vote for the end of politics as we know it. The faster the better, please.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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