- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Britain gave us Twiggy (remember her?) and the Beatles, and this week it’s payback time. We’re returning the favor with the slap and dash of an American presidential election. Old Blighty is awash in endless public-opinion polls, televised debates taking the measure of the candidates’ cosmetics, celebrity endorsements, dramatic gaffes and a media-manufactured cry for some of Barack Obama’s hopey-changey.

The three-way race ends Thursday, when voters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland decide whether to sack Gordon Brown and the Labor Party and, if so, whether to replace him with David Cameron and the Conservatives or Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. The late polls show the Conservatives out front and inching toward a slender majority.

Mr. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are trying to run in the shrinking shadow of President Obama, with Mr. Clegg quoting the president endlessly and inviting deferential comparisons, but in the end, he may be remembered by the political junkies and groupies only as a British equivalent of Ross Perot or John Anderson, someone who briefly tickled the body politic and then disappeared on the first post-election breeze.

Britain, like America, has come on hard times in the search for a bold, strong leader with an understanding of the tides of history and an appreciation of what it takes to master those tides. Anyone looking for Maggie Thatcher on the English hustings will be as disappointed as someone who looked for a Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan in America two years ago.

But for the Thatcher interlude, British voters have been looking for a way to retreat into “Little England” for years, many of them imagining that playing second fiddle to the Germans and the French would make sweet music rain down on Europe. Nick Clegg, an unlikely Englishman, appeals to the British voters who yearn to be European and want Britain to move into a closer embrace of the bureaucrats in Brussels. Mr. Clegg’s ancestry is Dutch and Russian; his wife is Spanish, and their three children have Spanish names. It’s impolite to mention Trafalgar at the Clegg dinner table.

Because there’s no Hollywood in “the sceptr’d isle,” Mr. Clegg’s coterie of glam endorsers must be recruited elsewhere. The list includes actor Colin Firth, celebrity ex-wife Bianca Jagger and Richard Dawkins, the scientist trying to be the Billy Graham of atheism. Despite such star power, Mr. Clegg is fading, like Ross Perot in America, as the election approaches and reality intrudes, as it inevitably does. With the election just 72 hours away, Mr. Clegg is sounding a loser’s lament: “David Cameron, with breathtaking arrogance, is already measuring up the curtains for No. 10 Downing Street, before you have even voted.”

As unlikely an Englishman as Nick Clegg may be, David Cameron is the perfect extrusion of soft damp plastic. He’s a one-time public-relations executive, the son of wealthy parents, and exudes the rehearsed sincerity of the manufactured politician. Continuing the American campaign model, he offers “key Conservative goals” of cleaning up politics, encouraging economic growth and resolving “social problems.” Who could argue with that? Naturally, he calls this his “Contract With Voters.” Newt Gingrich and the Republicans may have a credible copyright-infringement lawsuit.

Gordon Brown scoffs that such a “contract” is just clever rhetoric — a “con trick” — but the prime minister is still reeling from his off-camera but on-microphone description of a nice widow, who asked him a question about immigration, as a “bigoted woman.” The nice widow was actually talking about blue-eyed Polish immigrants taking jobs she thinks blue-eyed Englishmen should have, but “bigot” has become the all-purpose default epithet applied to anyone who dissents from the politically correct, and Mr. Brown, a practicing Presbyterian, is paying the price. He went to the widow’s home to deliver his apology as “a penitent sinner,” but the damage was done.

If there’s no clear parliamentary majority after the Thursday vote, there will be what the British call “a hung Parliament,” and the prime minister from whatever coalition can be put together will hold a weakened hand. This, some analysts suggest, will further weaken the “special relationship” between the Americans and the British forged during World War II and continued during the Cold War. This is the special relationship gleefully damaged by Mr. Obama in his first days in the White House, when he made a point of sending home a borrowed bust of Winston Churchill that had been displayed prominently in the White House for decades. But the bond between “a common people divided by a common language” is likely to survive mere elections. It always has.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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