international analysis and commentary

Britain and its three antiheroes

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It isn’t often that an election produces three losers and no winners. Yet that is exactly what has happened in the UK. Labour, the incumbent holder of power for 13 years, led by the exhausted and deeply uncharismatic Gordon Brown, received its expected electoral shellacking, losing 90-plus seats and coming a distant second to the Tories in terms of voting percentage.

If anything, the Lib Dems have even more reason to feel glum than Labour; for unlike the governing party they flunked the expectations game, doing far worse than anyone had thought they would. Buoyed beyond measure by leader Nick Clegg’s JFK-like performance in the first leader’s debate, the central pre-election narrative was that of the Lib Dems coming from nowhere to demand that the two status quo parties be held accountable for the mess Britain now finds itself in.

But as is true with many holiday romances, the public’s adoration for Clegg came to an end with the cold light of day. As he engagingly admitted, once in the polling booths voters hesitated, and then played it safe, in this time of crisis voting for the devils they knew. The Lib Dems actually lost a few seats, finished their usual third, though their share of the vote increased slightly. But this was not the tantalizing breakthrough Liberals have been waiting for since the ousting of Lloyd George in the early 1920s.

As for David Cameron and the Tories, winning a plurality of the vote still felt like a setback. The Tories started this election in pole position, with most recent opinion polls confidently predicting that they would win an absolute majority. Yet Cameron ran a surprisingly lackluster campaign, losing the mantle to Clegg as the bright young thing in British politics.

So like the great standoff scene at the end of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, three wounded, limping, but bitterly determined protagonists resolutely faced one another in the hung parliament showdown after the election. And like that wonderful film, no one seemed to know what would happen next, as there are simply no rules for the very odd situation our three antiheroes found themselves in.

The outcome was determined by each of the three protagonists making a move that, just days before, no one would have thought remotely possible. Nick Clegg went first. Defying Labour’s Lord Mandelson, who reminded everyone that tradition had it that the sitting Prime Minister had first crack at forming a government in the event of a hung parliament, Clegg turned precedent on its head. To not alter the game decisively would have given the gravely wounded Brown the impetus back, just as Mandelson knew it would. Clegg did not fall into this political trap. The Tories had secured the most votes and the most seats by a good ways. The Lib Dems, in the uncomfortable but enticing role as kingmakers, would talk firstly and primarily to them about forming some sort of coalition.

Clegg’s bold move worked, for the simple reason that it seemed eminently fair. His own supporters, most of whom see themselves as part of the progressive left of British politics, were quieted, precisely because they were also seen as favoring a new politics based on this notion of “fairness”. In mastering his own party at the very start of the post-election wrangling, Clegg set the tone for what was to follow; critically from here on, Labour would be outside the main drama, a very interested bystander that would only matter if the Con-Lib Dem talks broke down.

But Gordon Brown did not go gentle into that good night. Aware that Clegg had decisively shifted the dynamics against Labour, Brown bravely fell on his sword. Aware that a personal, visceral dislike between himself and Clegg threatened any possibility of a left-wing deal, Brown stunningly announced that he would resign come September, and that he could offer the Lib Dems the thing they wanted above all else—a referendum on proportional representation. Such a change would enshrine the Lib Dems as a significant player in British politics in perpetuity, and might well keep the Tories out of government semi-permanently, given closer Lib-Lab ties. It was a bold move, and a potentially game-changing one.

However, no sooner had the ramifications of this sunk in, than Cameron, at last and assuredly, played his card. He would go into formal coalition with the Lib Dems, and not merely rely on them for tacit support in running a rickety minority government, as most had thought likely.

Given the profound policy differences between the two parties, things were worked out in a rather quick five days. The Tories prevailed on the basic need to begin radically trimming the yawning budget deficit as soon as possible. Proportional representation was off the table, though a referendum on the lesser evil (from their point of view) of an alternate voting system was agreed to. Nick Clegg would become Deputy Prime Minister, with four of his Lib Dem colleagues also sitting in the joint cabinet.

The very surprising deal worked for a number of reasons. First, given the austerity to come, the Tory leadership convinced its rank and file MPs that a minority government couldn’t possibly survive for long, while making the tough decisions on its own necessary to right the beleaguered British economy.

The Lib Dems came to the conclusion that Brown couldn’t deliver his party regarding any deal made with Labour. Years of false-start mutinies have left the backbench MPs ungovernable. Worse, the leadership contest that Brown’s offer to resign would trigger would lead to unbearable uncertainties, crippling a Lib-Lab coalition at birth. Finally, the math just didn’t add up. Together the Liberals and Labour would still be short of a majority, being forced to rely on Scottish and Welsh nationalists to remain in power.

But the overlooked factor of generational history also played a huge role. Unlike Brown, who neither of the other men can seem to bear, Cameron and Clegg are both young, come from privileged backgrounds, and have worked at things beyond their domestic parties (Clegg worked in Europe, Cameron had a public relations job with Carleton television). Clegg and Cameron are part of a post-Cold War generation for whom international multipolarity is not debatable, but matter-of-factly sums up the world they live in. This set both apart from the older, more parochial Brown, who seems to care for and know little beyond his immediate tribalist Labour background. These personal commonalities explain the surprising ease and relative comfort level between the two new leaders.

This advantage is going to have to sustain them through some very rough waters. While in terms of debt Britain is in better shape than Greece, its staggering deficit makes it a candidate for future market assaults. Although aware of this, these past fascinating few days have been characterized by one additional feature: the eloquent silence of all parties on how to make the coming age of austerity work.

The answer—some mix of tax rises, spending cuts, and a general recognition that the age of abundance is over, given the overwhelming and looming demographic pressures on all rich western societies—is not one that any party remotely faced up to, preferring to leave the extent of the bad news to later. Until Western leaders of all stripes have the bravery and the creativity to find a convincing electoral narrative to explain both the peril and the way out of this coming age of scarcity, all talk of a new politics merely amounts to sound and fury, signifying nothing.