Five Myths of British Politics

The House of Lords

For reasons that remain mysterious to me even after two decades in the United States, Americans believe that British people are smarter, British television is better, and British politics are more civilized. (My own English accent gets me credited with 20 IQ points I don’t have.) Ten days here during a general election campaign will shatter those myths, as well as most of the other ideas Americans hold about British political superiority.

Myth No. 1: Brits are terribly polite. Watch a TV interview with a politician and tell me if you still think Brits have lovely manners. The only thing about contemporary Britain that’s more shocking than the cost of living is the disrespectful way people talk to their leaders. In the 50 or so interviews I’ve watched over the last week and a half, pols were allowed to finish an answer without interruption on just two or three occasions. The TV interrogator’s worst fear seems to be that viewers will judge him insufficiently aggressive, and allowing a candidate to finish a thought would apparently be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Interviewers are as accusatory and snide as an attorney attacking a hostile witness. Perhaps the U.S. media is too deferential, but many British journalists are just plain rude. And the British public make the journalists look sweet by comparison. (America’s insufferably polite town-hall audiences would be ridiculed here.) Last week on BBC’s Question Time, the outraged audience treated the nation’s senior politicians like juvenile offenders, booing, wagging disapproving fingers, and larding their voices with scorn. (To see the show for yourself, follow the link from this page; Blair’s grilling begins at the one-hour mark, though all the leaders were dissed.)

Myth No. 2: Brits are great debaters. For all the parliamentary parry and thrust familiar to viewers of Prime Minister’s Questions on C-SPAN, there’s even less face-to-face verbal sparring come election time than in the United States. Indeed, the party leaders never appeared on the same platform during the entire campaign. The closest they came was the Question Time in which Charles Kennedy, Michael Howard, and Tony Blair faced the same studio audience one after another. Still, the Guardian’s TV critic shed no tears for the lack of a side-by-side confrontation, finding the scrutiny of relentless British interviewers “a tougher and [more] revealing examination than a structure of rehearsed opening statements and learned-by-rote rebuttals modelled on a school debating society.”

Myth No. 3: Brits have such an original way with words. I’d love to regale you with quaint Anglicisms, but the jargon from this election was all imported from overseas. The Conservatives’ Australian campaign adviser brought “dog-whistle politics”—the art of raising an issue that only voters attuned to that frequency can hear—from Down Under. The most sought-after voter of this campaign was the “schoolyard mum,” an English cousin of the soccer mom. And the Tories’ quickly jettisoned slogan, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” isn’t all that original either. A letter to the satirical magazine Private Eye noted that in the 1988 French presidential race, the notorious Jean-Marie Le Pen ran under the banner, “Notre programme est-ce que vous pensez” (“Our program is what you’re thinking”).

Myth No. 4: The short election season improves British politics. American goo-goo types complain that the endless campaign season distracts voters from serious issues and focuses them on silly scandals. Britain’s compressed four-week campaign is supposed to concentrate the election on substantive issues. Instead, the last two weeks of the campaign have been hijacked by issues voters don’t really care about—notably an opaque, hard-to-follow scandal about whether Tony Blair told the truth about some pre-Iraq-war intelligence. (Not only do voters seem confused by the controversy, it isn’t even helping Blair’s rivals very much.)

Myth No. 5: After all these years of representative government, Brits know how to run an election. Magna Carta, 1215. The Model Parliament, 1295. England may be the mother of parliaments, but judging from this year’s shambolic performance, the British still haven’t figured out the democratic process. After a rule change, registration for postal voting has almost quadrupled since the 2001 general election, with 15 percent of registered voters now set to mail in their ballots. Rather than welcoming this facilitation of the franchise, the media have highlighted various claims of fraud—stories of phantom voters and massive leaps in postal registration in marginal seats, especially in areas with high concentrations of Muslim voters. The judge who conducted an inquiry into postal voting irregularities in Birmingham’s 2004 local elections called the current system “an open invitation to fraud,” and yet no procedural changes were made before the general election. Well, at least there’ll be no Ohio- style conspiracy theories involving electronic voting machines. Brits still mark their X’s on paper ballots.

Correction, May 5: The photo caption for this day’s dispatch originally mistakenly identified the legislative body pictured as the House of Commons. It is the House of Lords.

Photograph of House of Lords by ROTA/Getty Images.