The British Election

May 1

Election days can be deeply unsettling to we nomads of the campaign trail. On Election Day more than any other we are forced to witness how little most people care about our obsession. They shop, work, laugh, worry, eat, and even sleep without a passing thought for what separates this day from yesterday or tomorrow. How deflating! It’s as if you woke up on Christmas Day expecting a huge haul of presents to find that everyone else on the planet had become an Orthodox Jew.

I pass the evening at a dinner party with English friends, and in the first two hours no one breathes a word about the election. But before long the election results trickle in, and the plummy BBC voice that emanates from the television in the next room describes a shift not just of political power but of political culture: For the first time in Tory Party history no MPs in Wales or Scotland … Britain’s first Muslim MP … twice as many female MPs as ever before … Mrs. Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley falls to Labor … half the Tory Cabinet gone … fewest number of Tory MPs since 1945 … the youngest prime minister since 1812. Pretty much everyone expected the Labor Party to win, but no one expected Labor to win like this.

God knows what it all means–what with so little of substance now separating the two parties. But a landslide in politics is regarded as more profound than a landslide in other walks of life, and the BBC announcers presume we are witnessing a turning point in history. No one thinks it terribly meaningful when British moviegoers make Die Hard 2 a smash hit and Waterworld a flop. Isn’t it possible for British voters to be driven by equally shallow sentiments?

As the rout builds, the self-importance of the moment builds with it: An argument breaks out at the table that suggests a bit more is at stake than meets the eye. It’s the first time in three weeks I’ve seen anyone other than John Major and his staffers become hysterical about Tony Blair. An English lawyer–kind, generous, intelligent, and mild mannered as anyone I know–slowly turns crimson. The Labor Party, he says in an outraged tone, is a threat to the British Way of Life.

“How?” asks someone, echoing the general view that there is little at stake.

“They’ll ban fox hunting,” says the English lawyer. “That’s a start.”

Everyone assumes he’s making a joke, but he’s not. “They think it is the rich who hunt fox, but it is not,” he says. “It is the farmer with 80 acres in the shires.”

His wife looks at him strangely. “But darling,” she says, “what do you care about fox hunting?”

“In many parts of England fox hunting is what keeps the fields cut and the hedges trimmed,” he says, gathering steam. “It’ll ruin everything.”

His wife and everyone else laugh at him. “I don’t know what foxes ever did to deserve the death penalty,” she says.

“Fox are vermin!” he exclaims. “They’ll muck up the House of Lords.”

“The foxes?”

“No, Labor.” The Labor Party has said it will take the vote away from hereditary peers. But this is the first I’ve heard anyone care very much about it.

“Darling,” says his wife, “hereditary peers shouldn’t have the right to vote. It’s undemocratic.”

“It’s worked for a thousand years,” he says. “I don’t see why they should change it.”

“I don’t think I know this man,” his wife of 11 years says, at length.

“I’m a conservative with a small ‘c,’ ” he says.

“I never knew that,” she says, then moves on.

And she didn’t. In 11 years she has never observed her husband under a Labor government. Such is the power we accord to politics that she is unnerved by his reactions to the slight change. The election is important, but mainly because everyone is conditioned to believe it is important. Tonight across Britain couples who have been together for nearly two decades are getting reacquainted.