Friday, April 23, 2010

A candidate for British prime minister said Thursday that the United Kingdom should not be at the “beck and call” of the United States, as the leaders of Britain’s top three political parties clashed in their second televised debate.

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said during the debate that Britain should act on the world stage in its interests and “not on the beck and call of somebody else,” a thinly veiled reference to the U.S.

His comment prompted his Labor Party rival, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to label him “anti-American.”

The Liberal Democrats, traditionally a “third party” in British politics, voted against the war in Iraq, and Mr. Clegg, who has emerged as a strong contender after a polished performance in the first debate last week, has questioned what he calls Britain’s “subservience” to U.S. interests.

Thursday’s debate in Bristol dealt largely with foreign-policy issues, from Britain’s role in Europe to whether the candidates would support future multilateral operations against al Qaeda.

Britons will vote on May 6.

Asked whether Britain would participate in future operations against terrorists, Mr. Brown said that acting against al Qaeda was essential to keeping Britain safe.

“We’ve already got al Qaeda in Somalia; we’ve already got problems with al Qaeda in Yemen. We are having to take action with our multilateral partners to deal with these problems and will continue to have to do so,” the prime minister said.

He said a “chain of terror” links al Qaeda to acts of violence that could happen in Britain.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who has been leading in polls, emphasized the need to learn from “mistakes of the past.”

The debate, only the second of its kind to be televised, turned feisty at times. At one point, Mr. Brown chided his opponents, saying they reminded him of his two young sons squabbling at bath time.

But analysts said foreign policy is not a top concern for British voters.

Tony Travers, an elections specialist at the London School of Economics, told The Washington Times that changes of government in Britain rarely alter foreign policy.

“The U.S. remains Britain’s most important strategic ally, though Nick Clegg has said he no longer really believes that the U.K.’s relationship with America is ‘special,’ ” Mr. Travers said.

He described the Liberal Democrats as far more “pro-European” than Labor and the Conservatives, one of which he said is likely to be the largest party in a new Parliament and both of which remain “staunchly Atlanticist.”

Rhian Chilcott, head of the Washington office of the Confederation of British Industry, said the U.S. and Britain share a special relationship, “but it is a special economic relationship, not a political one.”

In March, a panel of British lawmakers said the phrase “special relationship” - coined by Winston Churchill more than six decades ago - no longer reflects political reality and should be dropped.

Still, the top issues in the British elections - immigration and the economy -are similar to those in the U.S.

Mr. Clegg said illegal immigrants should pay their taxes and speak English, while Mr. Cameron contended that immigration to Britain in recent years has “simply been too high, and we do need to bring the level down.”

The Liberal Democrats’ strong showing in opinion polls has fueled speculation about the prospects of a coalition government, a rarity in British politics.

Under Britain’s system, it is almost certain that the Liberal Democrats will not win the election, but it could end up playing kingmaker in a coalition government.

“As of today, a hung Parliament looks a reasonable possibility,” Mr. Travers said, referring to a coalition government.

Britain had its most recent coalition government in 1974. It lasted eight months.

Mr. Cameron said he didn’t think such a government would be good for Britain.

The prospect of a coalition government also is worrying the business community. “Companies like certainty, and a hung Parliament could lead to a sustained period of uncertainty,” Ms. Chilcott said.

But Mr. Clegg urged voters not to believe “all these ludicrous scare stories about markets and political Armageddon if [a hung Parliament] is what happens.”

The high degree of voter disenchantment has made it difficult for analysts to predict the outcome of the election. “Voters may choose to express their displeasure by either choosing not to vote or voting for the ‘third candidate,’ ” said Ms. Chilcott, who sees this as a factor in Mr. Clegg’s popularity.

Mr. Clegg faced the consequences of that popularity when he was savaged by conservative-leaning British newspapers this week. The Daily Telegraph reported that he had received money from three businessmen in 2006; the Daily Express ran a story under the headline “Clegg’s Crazy Immigration Policy”; and the Daily Mail matched the attacks with a story titled “Clegg in Nazi Slur on Britain.” That story referred to an article Mr. Clegg wrote in 2002 in which he said Britain had “a misplaced sense of superiority” after the defeat of Germany in 1945.

Mr. Clegg, who has compared his popularity to that of Winston Churchill, told reporters on Thursday, “I must be the first politician who’s gone from being Churchill to being a Nazi in under a week.”

Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a joint initiative of the London School of Economics and the London College of Communication, predicted that the attacks on Mr. Clegg would boost the candidate’s popularity.

“The attacks on Clegg by the old-fashioned partisan newspapers will backfire in that they will strengthen the sense that he is an outsider who is taking on the discredited established forces,” Mr. Beckett said.

Mr. Travers said the attacks on Mr. Clegg were evidence that the Liberal Democrats “now present a threat to the Conservatives - and Labor.”

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