Roving thoughts and provocations

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After the Second Debate: The Clegg Catharsis?

After the second televised prime ministerial debate , Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats continue to run neck-and-neck in opinion polls with David Cameron’s Conservatives, with Gordon Brown and Labour in third place.

This interesting, but not entirely unexpected, turn of events has little to do with Clegg’s personal charisma or a sudden rush of popular enthusiasm for Lib Dem policies, like their strong support for Britain’s membership of the EU, their redistributionist tax schemes (among other measures, they’d raise the basic tax threshold to £10,000 per annum and slap a “mansion tax” on houses worth more than £2m), and their championing of civil liberties against New Labour’s increased use of extended detention without trial and mass surveillance. Polling suggests that most Britons are either lukewarm about the Lib Dem proposals or don’t know what they are. Their enthusiasm for Clegg, and their seeming readiness to vote Lib Dem on May 6, has another likely explanation.

Most commentators have pointed to the great parliamentary expenses scandal of last spring as the “cause” of the present mood of distrust and contempt for politicians in general. But it was not the cause so much as the convenient catalyst for a breaking wave of fury that had been building in strength from around the midpoint of Tony Blair’s second term in office (2001-2005). The huge unpopularity of the 2003 Iraq invasion (supported by the Conservatives, but opposed by the Lib Dems), followed by the bursting of the property bubble and the steep rise of unemployment and home foreclosures that came with deepening recession, had turned British voters against their political class long before the Telegraph got hold of its bootleg disk of MPs’ claims on their allowances.

When the scandal broke in April, it seemed to ratify everyone’s worst opinion of parliamentarians—that they were all in it for themselves, all had their snouts in the same trough, and none were to be trusted with running the country. Timing was everything. The story happened to come out when Britain was enduring the worst of the recession, when people were baying for a scapegoat to blame for their shuttered businesses and underwater mortgages, and MPs as a class became that useful animal, and more easily targeted than the hated bankers. On May 14, 2009, in Question Time with David Dimbleby, broadcast from Grimsby, the audience treated the politicians on stage as if they were miscreants on exhibition in the village stocks. Interestingly, the then leader of the Lib Dems, Sir Menzies Campbell, was treated with as much disrespect as his fellows.

The expenses scandal was clearly a cathartic moment for the electorate, the perfect opportunity to put MPs in their place, take them down a peg, and tell them what’s what in no uncertain terms. The May 6 election seems to present just such another opportunity. When Brown and Cameron agreed to allow Nick Clegg to make a threesome in their debates, they can’t have foreseen what now look like the inevitable consequences. For as soon as Clegg appeared at his own lectern, on an equal footing with Brown and Cameron, British voters appeared to scent a fresh catharsis in the immediate offing.

Clegg’s great attraction in the first debate was that he managed to look and sound like a disgruntled voter when he said, “Don’t let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties that have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years now, making the same old promises, breaking the same old promises,” and, of Brown and Cameron, “The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.” In the second debate, he maintained his edge by playing the part of the man of practical common sense, sandwiched (literally, for this time he stood at the center lectern) between two tiresome, warring ideologues. It’s a role at which he is surprisingly good. Though, like Cameron, he comes from a rich family and was privately educated, Clegg’s accent is mongrel-London and his pleasant face looks more fils du peuple than to-the-manor-born. His great strength is that he comes off as entirely inoffensive; decent, knowledgeable, articulate without being dangerously eloquent or witty, bright but not brilliant, telegenic but not a natural star. Eight days of national fame have led to a rash of silly comparisons with Obama, which, I think, miss the whole point of Nick Clegg, one of whose chief merits, to the skeptical British eye, is that he is no Obama.

Clegg and the Lib Dems give the electorate the chance to teach the British parliament a lesson that it won’t forget. It’s no wonder that support seems to be draining from the odious British National Party and the eccentric, noisy United Kingdom Independence Party, for protest has found a more effective way of registering its dissent—by hanging parliament, as if by the neck. On the BBC election website, there’s an interactive toy, the Election Seat Calculator, with which one can (crudely) translate votes into seats. On April 23, the day after the second debate, the “poll of polls” gave the Lib Dems 30 per cent, Conservatives 33 per cent, Labour 27 per cent, and Others (including the Scottish and Welsh nationalists) 10 per cent. According to Britain’s first past the post system—which essentially negates Lib Dem votes in Labour and Conservative strongholds, provided the incumbent party still wins those constituencies—this would work out as 261 seats for Labour, 258 for the Conservatives, 102 for the Lib Dems, and 10 for Others—a result manifestly unfair (the party with the fewest votes takes the most seats), but also pretty satisfying if you are, as Britain is now, in a plague-on-all-their-houses mood. It will give politicians of the three biggest parties a blinding headache, and by doing so it will assure an angry and cynical electorate that this time it has managed to pull off something really big at the ballot box.

PS: Over the weekend of April 24-25, half a dozen polls showed a slight decrease in support for Clegg and the Lib Dems, and a corresponding rise in support for Cameron and the Conservatives. Impossible to tell yet whether this is a blip or a serious augury. Some commentators are saying that Clegg’s moment of glory has likely peaked, others that his souffle-like rise is showing the first signs of collapse. The reliable go-to site on new polls and their interpretation is Anthony Wells’s UK Polling Report.

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