Saturday, June 6, 2009

Great Britain, Labour Meltdown

For me, before there were pens there was politics. By my thirteenth birthday I was fascinated by the political process that led to the rise of John F. Kennedy, and in high school I was active in and a local officer of the Californai Federated Young Democrats. In college I studied politics as first a political science and then a political history major. My interest and activity extended through the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

So, it has been interesting to be in the UK for the past four and a half months during a period of political instability that now looks as if it might result in the parliamentary (but not electoral) replacement of an unelected prime minister by another unelected prime minister. Parliamentary politics can be complex.

For those who know the system, no prime minister is ever elected in the sense that a president is elected, even indirectly, by the people. In the UK folks vote for members of a party who have selected their leader. Should that party achieve a majority (or create a majority coalition) that leader becomes PM. Still with me?

In 1997, Labour, behind the seemingly skilled leadership of Tony Blair, who had reshaped Labour from a socialist to a moderate social democrat party, swept to one of the strongest victories in modern history. Blair called subsequent, early elections in 2001 and, finally, in 2005. But even then, there were cracks in the party, as many loyalists came to doubt the rightward swing of Labour and within the party Blair had to cut a deal with his powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. It was a comedown for the man who, in 1997 all but destroyed the Conservative party. Two years later, as a result of a party revolt, Brown replaced Blair.

Since then, the British-- from his colleagues, to the media, to the people--have come to hate their leader with a ferocity that is hard to fathom. Perhaps the best parallel is with Gray Davis, the aptly named California governor who was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis was a more than competent apparatchik who lacked the common touch. Add to this Brown's seeming inability to understand any aspect of modern political life and you may have the recipe for his downfall. For example, his own ally and Europe Minister, Caroline Flint, resigned yesterday calling for Brown's ouster, after having earlier pledged support, apparently no longer willing to be regarded as, in her words, "female window dressing."

All this notwithstanding, from a policy perspective it is hard to fault Gordon Brown’s brief tenure as Prime Minister. But almost from the start he has shown a remarkable inability to communicate with the British people. Add to that the economic meltdown (which he actually did much to mitigate both at home and internationally), the fact that Labour has been in power for twelve years through four elections and you have a recipe for regime change. That, along with the recent revelations about excessive claims for expenses by members (of all parties).

Still, in April when I had occasion to meet with the member for Bath, Don Foster, a Liberal Democrat (Britain’s somewhat incongruous third party), in response to my question about a possible coalition government coming out of the upcoming elections, he predicted a fourth electoral victory for Labour, albeit with a severely reduced majority. Today, no one believes Labour can win in 2010, especially behind the leadership of Brown who is under intense pressure to resign, presumably in favour of Alan Johnson, newly appointed as Home Secretary, or possibly Alastair Darling, Brown’s powerful Chancellor.

For an erstwhile political junkie, it has been fascinating to watch all this play out, even as I have been forced to observe the even more compelling advent of Barack Obama from a distance.

Once I return home, not only will I be able to watch the remarkable changes in the American political landscape closeup, but thanks to the internet I will be able to keep track of British politics, simply by keeping open the Guardian tab on my browser.

My guess is that it may take a few more weeks for the full impact of Friday’s elections in which Labour ran third and lost every single of the local council elections, to sink in. But if parliamentary elections were held today, the Tories under David Cameron, would win handily; and, in my opinion, that would be a tragedy for the British people.

Of the major nations, Britain seems the hardest hit by the current depression. Already their social services are strained beyond breaking (viz the recent Sannix trial and several child deaths due to lax social services). Nor does it seem that the Tories would do anything to arrest the British slide toward authoritarianism in the name of national security (for which Labour is rightly blamed).

It seems inevitable that Brown will be ousted. One of the hallmarks of a “free” society is that leaders are not only opposed, and even mocked, but when they start laughing, you, as a leader, are cooked. Brown is the focus of not just opposition, but both mockery and derision. His days seem numbered, his replacement as party leader and then prime minister ahead of the June 2010 elections inevitable. But even if that occurs, progressive government in Britain may be doomed.

Enough of my political ramblings. This afternoon we will undertake our last excursion, to the nearby home of Charles Darwin.

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