- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

LONDON — The first British parliamentary election since September 11 is two days away, and there are almost zero signs of political activity on the streets of London. Few if any campaign signs. No one wearing buttons. No passionate arguments in pubs or coffeehouses.

Stop a British voter on the sidewalk, and they’ll tell you that they don’t like or trust any of the three major candidates — incumbent Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, Conservative Michael Howard or Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy. (That is, if they don’t tell you to “sod off.” Those grumpy conservatives at the Spectator magazine may have a point about declining British manners.)

When you compare this campaign to last year’s American presidential election, it becomes clear what a clash of the titans the 2004 race was, a battle between two starkly different worldviews and values. “Pre-emptive regime change” vs. “the global test”; “Passion of the Christ” vs. “Fahrenheit 9/11”; the bloggers vs. Dan Rather; red states vs. the blue. This year’s parliamentary elections feel like a quibble between two shades of purple.

George W. Bush and John Kerry also felt like two representatives of two cultures. The Democrat projected an aura of the secular intellectual, prone to lengthy internal debate and contemplation, and willing — perhaps too willing — to reverse course in the face of changing circumstances. The Republican was openly religious, relied on gut instincts, made quick decisions and stuck to them in the face of adversity.

There seems to be nowhere near as dramatic a difference between the styles of Messrs. Blair and Howard, or even Mr. Kennedy. The prime minister comes across as eloquent but perhaps too slick; his conservative challenger comes across as smart but cold. Other than a rural vs. urban split on the issue of banning fox-hunting, there’s little talk of “red Britain” and “blue Britain.”

It seems counterintuitive that the nation that features “Questions with the prime minister” could let its politics get bland and boring. But it has. And that’s a shame, because while many British may prefer a political system relatively free of faith-based politicking, NASCAR endorsements, Springsteen concerts doubling as political rallies, swift boat vets and overtly political documentaries at the multiplex, this isle could use some culture wars.

The combative and lively British newspapers still represent every niche in the political spectrum, but the BBC makes Dan Rather look even-handed and dedicated to getting the facts right. The Beeb recently produced two terrifying movies about terrorism on British soil — the faux documentary “Smallpox” and the dirty-bomb portraying “Dirty War” — and yet, many of the loudest British voices doubt the seriousness of the threat and attribute sinister motives to the American war on terror. During Mr. Blair’s first two terms, it seems the British identity has eroded, with a soft pudding of multiculturalism eroding any overt patriotism and pride in the accomplishments of a great kingdom.

This country needs some serious debates about its identity, the threats it faces, its role in the world, its relationship with the United States, how it fits into the European Union, how to handle an overwhelming influx of immigrants and asylum seekers and what it wants in a leader.

But instead of coming out and making an argument, the two major candidates are each playing the prevent defense, offering voters a vague, inoffensive muddle of pleasant-sounding proposals.

Mr. Blair’s pledges to ban air guns and toy guns and Mr. Howard’s unenlightening attacks on the prime minister’s smirk aren’t cutting it. The trailing third party, the Liberal Democrats, have offered an agenda that’s clearly bold and different (think of Ralph Nader’s Green Party, with a different accent) but few British voters see them as ready to govern.

This is an election that could have used some swift boat vets challenging a national narrative, some passionate arguments in documentary form, some pajama-clad bloggers storming the castle of an arrogant and elite media.

Maybe next time around. If Mr. Blair is re-elected, few British political observers expect him to serve a full five-year term. Some are predicting a departure as soon as late 2006 or early 2007. And maybe then, the British can enjoy the fruits of a wide-ranging and full-throated debate.

Jim Geraghty is a contributing editor at National Review.

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