The first grown-up book I ever read as a teenager (you can’t say ‘adult book’ anymore) was All the President’s Men. Since then, like many Brits, I’ve had a fascination with American politics, and an obsession with The West Wing. I spent most of January ploughing through Richard Ben Cramer’s gigantic What it Takes, an enthralling look at the personalities and politics of the 1988 presidential campaign (and of the primaries that preceded it).
It’s good to look at things in reverse, and to see how a US journalist sees British politics, and especially how our election campaign strikes the eyes of someone from across the Atlantic. You can read Jacob Weisberg’s take on the three main candidates here, but these are his more general comments on our strangely muted electoral process:
Since arriving in London last week for a hack’s holiday, I have been asked several times: do Americans care about the British election? The truthful answer is that no, we don’t, mainly because we haven’t developed a relationship with any of the candidates. Unlike during the Blair-Clinton years, there is no fraternal bond between New Labour and the Democrats. Unlike during the Blair-Bush years, there’s no prayerful union between PM and president.
What’s more, it’s difficult to argue that America should care who wins. To one who lived here in the late Thatcher era, the range of policies proposed by the three parties is surprisingly narrow. What differences exist have few implications for the United States. It might give pause in Washington that Nick Clegg failed in the debates to respond to Gordon Brown’s charge of anti-Americanism, but no one has yet registered a meaningful threat to the special relationship.
Nonetheless, the British election compels American attention, for two reasons. The first is simply as sport. However small the stakes for us, this has turned into a fine drama, with an uncertain outcome on 6 May and the uncharted possibility of a hung parliament thereafter. The second is what we have to learn from the way elections are still conducted here. Our American campaigns have gone decadent, becoming spectacles of horrifying length and expense, characterised by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals and a running media freakshow.
Yours feel, by contrast, pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.