Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Witnessing the change of power

I was sick when the British election, and all of its forming a coalition government aftermath, was taking place. I followed it a bit on the news, but I didn't read/watch too much as I was more preoccupied with the swamp of gunk lodged in my throat. That said, it was fascinating watching and trying to understand the whole process. A non-British friend on Twitter recently asked me what the Brits thought about it all, and I figured it would be interesting to write from my foreign perspective.

So, not a conclusive post on British elections at ALL. But an American perspective:

People have been angry that the party they voted for (whatever party it was, Tory, Labour or Lib Dem) didn't win. No one voted for a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. So the passionate party supporters, on both ends of the spectrum, are unhappy. That said, so far the coalition government seems to be quite moderate. It reminds me of a session in Congress. Cameron (the Tory Prime Minister) will say, "University funding will be cut," and Clegg (the Lib Dem Deputy PM) will say, "Okay, but then we'll need to give more funding to secondary schools in impoverished areas." The government is offering compromises and watered down legislation from both parties.

So I wonder if, in the end, people will be fairly happy with the coalition government. Its laws will be fairly middle of the road, appeasing both sides. On the contrary, it may not accomplish much of anything.

However, the split between the Tories and the Lib Dems, while wide, is not nearly as large as the gulf between, say, President Obama and Mitch McConnell (Republication Minority Leader). It's more like, say, Susan Collins (moderate Republican Senator) and Obama. That said, the parties don't line up according to US politics. The Tories do not equal American Conservatives, Labour is not the Democrats. Policies are more muddled than that and between the US and the UK there are different cultural backgrounds and understandings (socialised medicine, for example). Though lately more Tories are aligning themselves with American and European extreme conservative movements, tapping into some of the nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-homosexual, religious fundamentalism associated with those groups.

One of the biggest issues on the British political table right now is electoral reform. As a non-Brit, with only a vague grasp of British politics, most of the debate doesn't make much sense to me. It's often framed in terms of abbreviations (the Alternative Vote: AV, First Past the Post: FPTP) and I get lost. Worse, they've progressed into discussing things like AV vs. AV+. Crystal clear, huh?

But the different schemes will give more opportunities to smaller parties, such as the Lib Dems and the Greens, which seems like a good idea. While many Americans complain about the US's two-party system, I've been struck here by how unfair it seems that the majority government can be chosen with less than 40% of the vote.

Unfortunately, many of the voting reform systems being discussed remind me of electing a high school class president. You'd be given a first, second and third choice. It seems awfully complicated and a little silly. But perhaps government needs to be a little complicated in order to represent people more fairly.

It's been an opportunity to watch all of this unfold and I have been ashamed at my own ignorance. Even for a cynic like me, there's something striking about witnessing a change of power. To quote Mike Tomasky, an American political blogger who writes for the British paper The Guardian, "Well I just watched the video of Brown leaving No. 10. I must say, there really is something moving about this peaceful transfer of power business. I get goosebumps. It's noble and decent. There's so little noble and decent in politics these days, especially in my country. But the idea that these rituals are being enacted in the same way they were, more or less, by Disraeli and Gladstone, or by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, does leave one humbled."


  1. Thank you, Anne!!
    I LOVE the last quote. Because I think we are so so cynical we forget that this is remarkable -- the passing of power. And "awfully complicated and a little silly" pretty much sums up politics for me.
    We're in the midst of Colombian presidential elections, so I'll do my own little post soon -- a comparative study of electoral processes. Unlike England, in Colombia the winner HAS to have over 50% of the votes. Period. If they don't, they go ROUND TWO which they'll be doing this June 20th.

    THANKS AGAIN!! Yes. VERY confusing this political mush.

  2. You're welcome, Heidi! Actually happy you suggested it. I wasn't sure I had much to say, but once I started writing, of course I had a ton.

    What's fascinating to me is that there's so many different ways of enacting democracy. From my ignorant American perspective, I assumed there was one way of doing something, and there would be variations on that. It's rather remarkable and exciting, though, to discover that there's hundreds of ways of doing something. Some are better, some worse, but all create functioning, democratic systems. And yeah, that is pretty cool.

    Mike Tomasky is a fab blogger, btw. Very worth following.

    Can't wait to hear all about the Colombian election. Thanks!

  3. Wow. I'm amazed by how well you know the system. It's all greek to me! I tend to get lost with politics.

  4. Thanks, Christina! The funny thing is, I'm a bit of a junkie when it comes to American politics. So I've been ashamed at how unengaged I have been with British politics. But maybe I can only keep one system straight in my head at a time! Or maybe it's just harder to get really involved when one can't vote. =)

  5. I think the parliamentary system is like cricket. Either you have the genetic encoding to understand it, or you don't.

  6. And I certainly don't! Perfect metaphor, Anne!


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