International Papers

Britain’s Election Daze

After months of anticipation, Prime Minister Tony Blair finally put the British press out of its misery Tuesday and announced that a general election will be held June 7. (For more on the timing of British elections, see this “Explainer.”) The election will be a tough one for the papers, since the result seems a foregone conclusion. An opinion poll conducted for the Daily Express predicted a Labor majority in the House of Commons of more than 250 seats, bookies have Labor as odds-on favorites, and Conservative leader William Hague, is, in the words of the Independent “not merely a joke figure; the polls show that he is despised by the voters.” (Ironically in such an unpromising election for gambling, the Independent’s election section is sponsored by bookmakers Ladbrokes. At the Ladbrokes Web site, most of the action seems to be on the size of the Labor majority.)

The biggest challenge of the election may well be persuading electors to go to the polls, and hacks’ thesauruses must already be dog-eared from searching for synonyms for “apathy.” Libération of Paris said that Blair’s main challenger wasn’t Hague but apathy, and it called the election buildup the “chronicle of a victory foretold.” Playwright David Hare, setting the stage for a regular campaign column in the Daily Telegraph railed against the ennui, announcing, “I find it bewildering that anyone in decent health and with a reasonable relish for the vagaries of human nature can claim to be bored by a general election. It seems as unlikely as saying that you are bored by casinos or public executions.”

An op-ed in the Independent reminded readers that although “[n]ever before has an election result been so boringly predictable,” Al Gore’s election also once seemed inevitable. The piece suggested that Labor “is in danger of repeating” Gore’s key mistakes: “feeding the voters’ mouths with their own gold” (throwing taxpayers’ money at social problems) and running on his record. “Voters expect a government to be competent, and they don’t reward it for doing what they see as the basic prerequisite of any worthwhile administration. So Labour’s campaign has to do what Gore’s never did: show how Britain will be different, and better, in 2005.”

The Financial Times summarized the main election issues as the “size of the state, the condition of public services, taxes and welfare, Britain and Europe, crime and punishment,” and it concluded, “these matter.” The editorial’s forecast was that: “Blair will be pressed on how Labour can continue to finance large increases in spending on health, education and transport. … Hague will be tested on how ‘saving the pound’ and seeking unilaterally to renegotiate Britain’s place in Europe are compatible with protecting its vital national interests. The Conservatives will be closely questioned, too, on how they can promise first-class public services and sizeable tax cuts.” An op-ed in the right-wing ABC of Spain declared that the June 7 election is a “formality,” with the real confrontation still to come. Tony Blair has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s adoption of the euro in the first half of the Labor Party’s second term. ABC predicted, “That will be the real battle.”

Home for the health care: The return to Britain of “Great Train Robber” Ronald Biggs, 35 years after he escaped from jail and fled the country, excited the passions of British journos much more than the election announcement. Biggs, the most famous survivor of the 1963 heist, served just 15 months of his 30-year sentence before busting out of Wandsworth Prison and absconding overseas. He spent more than 30 years in Brazil, successfully battling several extradition attempts, occasionally popping up in the tabloids crowing about his glamorous life in Rio. His return earlier this week was facilitated by the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid the Sun, whose payments to Biggs’ family and associates, estimated by the Guardian to be in the neighborhood of $62,500, have led to an investigation by the Press Complaints Commission. (The PCC code of conduct prohibits payments to criminals, except when there is a “significant public interest for doing so.”) The Sun trumpeted its achievement in flying Biggs from Rio to London in a private jet as “one for the history books. … One of the greatest criminal sagas of our time is over. He was brought back with utter efficiency—and at no cost to the great British taxpayer.”

British taxpayers were at the center of most of the coverage of Biggs’ homecoming: The 71-year-old fugitive has had three strokes and is in very poor health. Most papers, especially the Sun’s tabloid rivals, claim he has gone home to take advantage of Britain’s National Health Service. The Daily Mirror headlined its story “The Great NHS Robbery” and claimed Biggs had returned to avoid “crippling medical bills” in Brazil: “[T]he cost of his treatment, estimated at [$7,000] a month, will be met by the British taxpayer, on top of the [$2,700] a month to keep him in prison. If Biggs survives another five years he will have ended up robbing the taxpayer of nearly half a million pounds.” The Mirror’s editorial slyly suggested that the Sun should underwrite Biggs’ medical expenses: “The Sun is always complaining about people who come into this country with the sole intention of sponging off the welfare state. There is no greater sponger than Ronnie.” The Times declared the exile’s return “pure mischief: clever, moderately amusing newspaper mischief, just the thing to take our minds off the election and Exmoor but nothing to do with justice. Natural justice decrees that, having made his bed in Brazil, the old beggar should lie in it, and not become an expensive liability to the country he rejected.” Even the usually middle-of-the-road Independent took a hard line:

Prison would not normally be an appropriate place for a sick old man. In this case, however, the sheer gall of Biggs’s behaviour—unrepentant defiance for the past three decades—means that he should serve every possible remaining day of his 30-year sentence. Despite his attempts to suggest differently, there is nothing romantic about Biggs’s behaviour in past years. He should die in a prison cell. Any other outcome would be a horrible reward for this “wisecracking fugitive”—the soft-soap tabloid phrase for a cynical criminal.