Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Masterpiece Theatre Party

I suspect that if there is one thing that the American chattering class of a certain age can agree on in politics it is the superiority, moral and intellectual--or at least aesthetic--of the British Liberal Party (these days, it's actually the Liberal Democrats, the Lib Dems, but we keep forgetting the Dems part). In our heart of hearts, it is right up there with Masterpiece Theatre--no, maybe it is Masterpiece Theatre with all those wise, wry yet compassionate vicars and dons assuring us that there'll always be a n England Britain and we won't have to be ashamed of it. We may be a bit chagrined about the drinking habits of Charles Kennedy although he seemed like a good chap; we have a vague sense that Paddy Ashdown is as solid as roast beef, but our memories really go back to Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith and perhaps even to the great W.S. Gladstone (Wasn't he the one who actually translated the Iliad? Oh yes he was.).

Ours is a taste somewhat like our youthful taste for Chairman Mao, in that it is perhaps best enjoyed at a distance. It has the added advantage of powerlessness: it's coming on 88 years now since the last liberal prime minister got himself turned out of office; ever since the libs have been free to counsel, to criticize, and otherwise to take the high ground.

Now we are in odd position of discovering that we might get what we wish for. It's probably still a long shot, but leveller heads than our own are saying that the plague-o'-both-your-houses British electorate is about to return a hung parliament, and that that nice young chap Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader might find himself a coalition prime minister.

Nick who? The truth is, we have a tough time distinguishing him from David Cameron, the one with the boyish smile who fronts for the conservatives. Clegg, the son of a banker, is just four months younger than Cameron, the son of a broker. Private schools, check, Oxbridge, check. The fact is, they are a couple of toffs. Cameron's pedigree is perhaps more Handelian; but Clegg can claim descent, if not from the Scottish highlanders, then from a member of the Imperial Russian Senate.

And now here is, the fresh-faced boy who seems to have set the nation on its ear with a dazzling presence in a debate the other night. Clegg for PM? I'd say it still has to be regarded as a longshot, but the British press has decided that that it's not beneath them to take it seriously. And what they find, of course, is that things are far stickier close up than they look from far away. Here, Timesonline puzzles over the issue of how he Clegg builds a coalition :

It’s easy to imagine Mr Clegg forming an alliance with Mr Cameron. A public-school-educated son of a banker, the man who leads the Liberal Democrats looks like a natural Conservative. Indeed, when he was working for Leon Brittan in Brussels, the European Commissioner assumed that Mr Clegg would end up as a Tory MP. Like Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg backs free schools and wants to scrap ID cards; he is in favour of a smaller state and green jobs. The “Orange book” Lib Dems and the Tory modernisers are socially as well as economically liberal. But neither represents their whole parties. Can you imagine Mr Clegg going into a coalition with Bill Cash? Or the Lib Dem sandal-wearing lefties agreeing to prop up a minority Conservative administration?

The Labour Party is similarly divided between modernising liberals and more statist traditionalists. The first group, which includes most of the Blairites, is in favour of constitutional reform and choice in the public services. They would love to create the “progressive alliance” with the Lib Dems that Mr Blair discussed with Paddy Ashdown in the run-up to the 1997 election. But they do not have complete control of their party. The second Labour group has a visceral loathing of the Lib Dems, regarding them as a combination of wimps and traitors with dangerous ideas about the role of the State. They would never contemplate any kind of alliance.

Mr Clegg has a problem with Mr Brown. It dates back to the MPs’ expenses scandal, when the Prime Minister summoned the Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders to a crisis meeting at No 10. They were given a 15-minute rant about what should happen, which ended with Mr Clegg telling Mr Brown: “Look, Gordon, there’s no point having this meeting if all you want to do is lecture us.” It was no coincidence that in last week’s debate, Gordon’s catchphrase was “I agree with Nick”, but Mr Clegg repeatedly shrugged him off. For the Lib Dem leader, his Labour rival symbolises the old style of politics. Despite Mr Brown’s recent conversion to changing the voting system and Lords reform, he sees him as part of Labour’s statist clique.

Indeed, those close to Mr Clegg have made it clear to senior Labour figures that it would be difficult for the Liberal Democrats to do a deal with a Labour Party led by Mr Brown. “The whole notion of change is so important to Clegg and Gordon doesn’t represent change,” says one Labour strategist. “It’s hard to see how they could prop up Brown in a hung Parliament.”

Link. So yes, we just might have a Clegg ministry. And a messy, confused, incoherent melange it may be. Welcome to hard times. And by the way, while we're considering how much Clegg looks like Cameron, isn't it the case that they both kind of put you in mind of this guy?

Update: The super smart guys at FiveThirtyEight ask: is the Lib Dem surge real? Their answer is a definite maybe.

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