I arrive in Britain to find that Britain is bored. Boring is a more inclusive insult here than it is in America. People who are late for dinner parties are boring. So are people who honk their horns on crowded city streets. And so for that matter are politicians who insist on being paid attention to for more than three weeks. Yesterday the three weeks were up and still the four most prominent candidates–conservative Prime Minister John Major, Labor Party leader Tony Blair, liberal democrat Paddy Ashdown, and billionaire Sir James Goldsmith–raced back and forth across the country in brightly painted buses. Battle buses, they call them. For some reason the conservatives decided that this campaign should run for six weeks, probably because they felt they needed a little extra time to sell themselves to the people. But the people hate them for it, and pretty much everything else.
This morning I head off to the Conservative Party offices near the houses of Parliament to gather the little red plastic badge journalists must wear around their necks. After about three minutes I can see that for all the talk of American influence, British politics remains distinct from American politics. On the counter by the door, for instance, is a quaint little tray piled high with pints of milk. As they pass through the metal detector, even the Tory big shots are permitted only one apiece for their afternoon tea. Then there is the Tory bookstore, which offers not only Tory propaganda but other people’s too: hagiographies of Tony Blair and Sir James Goldsmith, left-wing attacks on Margaret Thatcher, a book called How Tory Governments Fall. I open what appears to be a neutral guide to British politics and find this description of John Major: “Incoherent political views; grey public image.” How can you not admire a politician who makes a business of selling this description of himself?
The only sign of humorless, heavy-handed, American-style propaganda (a k a spin) is the giant portrait of John Major on the wall. But even that is more realistic than glorifying. It captures perfectly, for instance, Major’s most unsettling physical trait, his upper lip. Or, rather, its absence. Major is a good speaker by British standards–sensational by American ones–but he is nonetheless a bit disturbing to watch. The absence of an upper lip gives him the same oral self-consciousness as a man who regrets having just shaved off his moustache. Watching Major during Question Time on C-SPAN I keep expecting his tongue to sneak out of his mouth and take a nostalgic swipe across the deserted landscape. The funny thing is, Major often is said to possess a stiff upper lip. And he does!
It takes only a few minutes to find out where Major is heading–a town in the south of England called Plymouth–and a few hours by train to get there.
This morning I woke up and wandered over to the Victorian hotel where Major was scheduled to meet and greet Tory Party activists. Having spent most of last year being kept several miles from presidential candidates I assume that I’ll have to watch the whole thing on television. But it isn’t three minutes before a door opens up on the hotel lobby and an officious-looking woman takes me by the arm and fondles my little red plastic badge. “Go on in,” she says, and so I do. Inside are three people who appear to have been waiting for me. One is a young woman wearing a blue badge that says she works for the Tory Party. Another is a man I take to be a security guard. The third is John Major. “Hello,” he says. “Hello,” I say back. “Come and sit down,” he says, and so I do.
Immediately we are joined by maybe a dozen other journalists, who form a semicircle around the prime minister (whom by now I think of simply as John). All are members of the cartel that covers parliament full time (called “the lobby”), and all are upset by the paltry material they’ve been given over the past few weeks. British journalists expect more from their politicians than American ones. For some reason no one in the cartel seems to mind the presence of an outsider, or even that the outsider has nabbed the chair closest to the prime minister. Forty-eight hours ago I was trying to coax a cocker spaniel into taking a shit on the Lower East Side. Now through some piece of magic I am so close to the prime minister that I can see every crinkle in his short, black saggy socks, and every hair on his pale white calf. If I reached out I could touch him.
For the next 30 minutes I watch the journalists try to get one thing out of Major, while Major tries to put something entirely different across to the journalists. The journalists are after some bit of color to illustrate the putatively gray man. To them the election is as good as over; their readers are bored; their editors have had enough policy.
“Yesterday Tony Blair was able to name three of the Spice Girls,” asks one, about a new British band. “Can you do better?”
Major names two, laughs, and says, “Ask me about bad opera.”
“What do you eat on the battle bus?” asks another. “Is it true that you eat Marmite sandwiches?”
“I do like Marmite sandwiches,” Major says, thoughtfully. “It is a very simple, easy food.”
“Your sister says you appear brighter since the campaign started,” says a third.
“Fresher,” says Major. “Not brighter.”
“How do you relax when you are not in the public eye?” asks a fourth.
“When are these happy moments when I’m not in the public eye?” asks Major, and everyone laughs knowingly. The campaign thus far has been dominated chiefly by the exposure of various Tory sex scandals. Journalism about British public life is actually more about private life.
But soon enough Major takes control of the conversation. He leans forward in his chair, as relaxed as Gregory Peck after supper. In the space of 10 minutes he argues there is no good reason he should be losing, much less losing by 20 points. The argument boils down to three main points, all of them true: 1) The British economy is more robust than it ever has been. 2) Tony Blair’s mastery of American-style campaign techniques (slick TV ads, tightly controlled public events, little press access, telling people whatever the polls say they want to hear) would backfire on him as prime minister. And 3) Blair’s campaign style betrays a lack of conviction about anything. “You’re jolly lucky to be with me,” says Major. “If you were with Blair, not only would you be cordoned off but it would be a good deal more expensive.”
But the journalists are having none of it; all they want is a bit of color. “What do you think of the dog?” asks one, referring to the British bulldog Blair is using tonight in a new, jingoistic TV ad.
“I’m fond of dogs,” says Major. “Even Labor dogs. It’s a nice dog. Just a pity about the handlers.”
And with that we are dismissed, cheerfully. “We’ll do this again later today if you’re interested,” says the prime minister.
On the way to the bus I hear two journalists conspire over their notes. “The Marmite sandwiches has been done before, hasn’t it?”
The only word of the interview with the prime minister that appeared in any British newspaper was the news that he was able to name only two of the Spice Girls.