The Ballot Papers of 2015: The British General Election

As this is being written, the general election of 2015 will have been concluded in Britain; the voters will have cast their votes and a long night will await those who have campaigned incessantly in the five-week period leading up to this day. It will be a very long night for those whose lifeblood is politics—for those who are hopeful would-be politicians and those jaded few who are certain to become newly certified, charter members of the “has-been, once-was” club, a club no politician ever wants to be a member of.  An anxious waiting game will be the order of the night (and possibly in the days ahead, too, if no clear outcome arises from it) and analyses and repercussions will soon be the top dishes on the political menu, along with generous dollops of crow (for those brave enough to partake of it). It brings to mind an anecdote about another Conservative leader of another time—Prime Minister Harold Macmillan—when he was once asked what most worried him, or what could possibly make him anxious. With typical Macmillan aplomb, he supposedly replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” 

That pretty much describes an election night; candidates try to appear nonchalant about the outcome, believing that the good voters will recognize their superior qualities and vote them—as well as their party—into office. No doubt that Mr. Macmillan, once dubbed “Supermac” and had as a campaign slogan, “You never had it so good,” would nod in sympathy from the great political beyond at the exertions today’s candidates and would-be leaders go through in the hopes of attaining political glory. But he also recognized that no matter how hard you may work, how brilliant your policy prescriptions may be, or how personable you are—and that ever present specter of “events,”—it all ends up in the hands of the voter who enters the polling station and fills out the ballot (or, as it is sometimes called in the British Isles, “the ballot paper”).


All that remains now at the conclusion of this British election season will be to see which party will emerge victorious (if possible) and if not, which party will have the wherewithal to scrounge up a majority to concoct a confection known as a coalition in order to govern.  Once all of that is done, a new Prime Minister will emerge in front of the black door of Number 10 Downing Street, flashing a Churchillian V-for-victory sign for the TV cameras, hoping to get as much attention (and maybe some of that enviable affection) that the new Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana has gotten by simply being born. And once the new PM goes through that door at Number 10, he (or she) will have a smorgasbord of problems and issues (ranging from economic policies to international terrorism) to contend with. And once that door closes behind the new PM’s back, it is a sure bet that the newly minted governmental leader will have a fleeting wish that all of it never happened, and that life on the “backbench” wasn’t so bad after all (“Hear, hear!”).

As this election concludes, there is no shortage of analyses about the import (or lack of one) this will have on British government and society, not to mention relations with the wider world. When people go out to vote, they tend to think of local “pocketbook” issues; not very often do elections hinge on foreign affairs (though they do tend to lurk in voters’ minds as they must, given the daily headlines); the late former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “all politics is local” is truly a universal one, which covers Boston as well as Brighton and all points in between.

As in every election, there have been the quirky moments, the inexplicable moments. For example, when incumbent Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron stated on an interview program that he wouldn’t seek a third term—and this, given he hasn’t even won his second one yet—opened him up to lots of brickbats of derision and charges of complacency, not to mention hubris (a not uncommon affliction of politicians and motley office seekers). And not to be outdone, his Labour Party opponent, Ed Miliband, came up with a six point proposal to show how the Labour Party would have the middle class’ back. There was nothing wrong with that, but only in how he presented it: he did so with a gimmicky presentation of a stone tablet etched with the six proposals, obviously evoking a Moses and the parting of the Red Sea tableau. Once he did that, the wags came forth wondering what happened to the other four points, to equal Moses’ ten—which goes to show, that even when ideas might look bright on paper, it does not necessarily follow that they’ll look good in stone. (Somewhere, someplace, even Woodrow Wilson must be ruing his “Fourteen Points” and the methods he used in trying to attain them—see Pope Benedict XV [his “ten points”] and World War I.)

And so, Conservative David Cameron, his coalition partner and Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, Labour’s Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon (leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, successor to Alex Salmond of independence referendum fame—fleeting thought: why is it that these Scottish leaders have “fishy-sounding” names?), UK Independence Party, or UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and Leanne Wood of the Welsh Plaid Cymru Party—all will have to await “events” of this night. The rallies will have ended; the TV interviews are done and over with, the election placards will come down and the “staged” events will be no more.

While the weeks-only general election campaign will have come to an end in Britain, our uniquely American presidential campaign season will have commenced in earnest, months and months ahead of Election Day, November 2016. Every day now, from since the beginning of the New Year through well into the next, we Americans will see a new candidate pop up with nauseating regularity vying for that republican crown (small “r” and alliterative “crown”) that is the Presidency of the United States. Commercials, consultants, speeches, policy papers, advertisements, fund-raising and more fund-raising, and rallies and “opposition research” galore: it is enough to make one look across the pond at John Bull with not a little envy for the abbreviated campaigns and the rush to what passes as “normal” in British politics.

In the United States, politics have become predictable, in that we all know in our heads what prospective candidates are against and we never really know what they’re for—and we know in our hearts that once elected, not a one of them will do anything about the problems that need urgent attention.  Our politicians will talk themselves blue in the face while making sure that their campaign coffers are lined with green and all the while the voters they seek to influence will fade to black from the boredom and ennui that is equally predictable, not to mention a certainty.

All that remains now is for the votes to be counted and for those plates of crow to be served later in the evening; perhaps with a little HP sauce to make it all palatable.  “John Bull,” meet “Uncle Sam.” In one of the last dispatches coming out of the British election, a New York Times  report quoted a 29-year-old woman, named Gayle Lazda—a London bookseller—who simply said: “I’m a bit sick of it all; it sounds the same.” Resignedly, she also said: “They have that way of speaking where it all sounds meaningless, and I can’t be bothered to listen. I don’t pretend to myself that it’s going to make a difference.”

She spoke like a true American voter.


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