What 'Cleggmania' can teach the U.S.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What happens when a credible third party gets a real chance to appeal to voters? With 10 campaigning days left, we are seeing the results in the British election, in which the surge of Liberal Democrat leader Nicholas Clegg is driving ideas and policies usually excluded from Britain's hidebound politics into the campaign debate -- and, possibly, into real-world actions. Americans locked into our two-party system could learn a thing or two.

Given the opportunity to be heard by a national TV audience in Britain's first-ever televised prime ministerial debates, Clegg turned in a stellar performance, mining widespread discontent with the establishment Labor and Conservative parties and emerging as a political superstar.

Even after a second debate in which Labor's Gordon Brown and the Conservatives' David Cameron engaged Clegg more aggressively in an effort to stop what some have dubbed "Cleggmania," the dynamics of the campaign -- which have the Liberal Democrat emerging as a powerful, possibly king-making force in the election -- have not fundamentally changed, and they probably won't following the third debate on Thursday.

Clegg's rise is inspiring for those of us on this side of the ocean who regularly rail against the ironclad consensus of excluded alternatives and managed expectations that are so familiar in America. Take, for example, Clegg's campaign to scrap Britain's Trident nuclear submarines, to challenge the dysfunctional U.S.-British "special relationship," and to propose far-reaching reforms to the calcified electoral system.

Clegg's position on the Trident has led Labor's Brown to portray Clegg as naive and weak on defense: "I say to you, Nick, get real, get real. . . ." But, as Clegg points out, it is Brown who needs to get real. "What's dangerous is to commit to spend" up to 100 billion pounds "that we might not have, on a system which almost certainly won't help, when the world is changing, when we're facing new threats."

Brown likes to fashion himself as the grizzled veteran among the three candidates, but as the prime minister who had to steer the United Kingdom through the financial crisis, he more than anyone should know that Britain, with its huge deficit and growing debt burden, can no longer afford a far-flung global military presence that stretches from the Middle East to Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

That is why Brown was also off-base to call Clegg's rethinking of the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States "anti-American." For historical and cultural reasons, there will always be a special bond between the two countries. But unlike the two major parties, the Lib Dems understand that the kind of special relationship in which the United States assumes many of the responsibilities of the old British Empire, with Britain as its loyal deputy, no longer serves either country's interests -- if it ever did. The disastrous war in Iraq, which Labor's Tony Blair enabled at every turn, and which Clegg and his party sharply opposed, should be proof enough of that. More important, the special relationship no longer reflects the needs and realities of the evolving world order in which legitimate multilateral action, even if sometimes less decisive than old-style American-British policing, is the only realistic option.

The Lib Dems are also channeling people's discontent with a sclerotic electoral system by proposing fundamental reforms. Longtime critics of Britain's winner-take-all politics, the Lib Dems' position is popular. Fewer than one in five Britons support the prospect of either Labor or the Conservatives winning the most seats despite getting fewer votes -- a real possibility according to polls, which has made the Lib Dem proposal for proportional representation suddenly respectable. And it's possible Labor would support broader electoral reform, depending on the outcome of the election. A win for proportional representation in Britain could invigorate the electoral reform movement in the United States.

But whatever happens, in these past few days we've witnessed an alternative and affirmative channeling of the anti-politics wave that is such a powerful force in Britain right now -- and in the United States. And while Clegg's personal appeal is clearly a major factor in his astonishingly fast political rise -- not to mention the experience he gained as a Nation intern in 1990 -- he and the Lib Dems are also playing a valuable role by focusing the full glare of public attention on issues that Britain's two mainstream parties have ignored for too long.

Some other political systems I can think of should be so fortunate.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation. She also writes a weekly column for The Post.

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