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Over There (in the UK)

May 6, 2005 at 12 AM

Her Majesty’s Royal Election

Someone once remarked that the British monarch is choosy about what is and isn’t “royal”. It’s the Royal Mail, and the Royal Navy and the Royal Botanic Gardens, but oh dear, nobody likes getting sick and there are long waits at the hospitals so we’ll call it the National Health Service.

One wonders then in this age of were-there-WMDs-in-Iraq-or-weren’t-there and let’s-keep-the-immigrant-hordes-at-bay whether Elizabeth II would want or would want not to lay claim to the election in the United Kingdom tonight. (Her Majesty’s Royal Democracy?)

I for one was quite surprised to discover that, as a Commonwealth citizen living in the UK, I was entitled to vote. (A courtesy, I might add, that is not extended to Britons living in Canada.) So vote I did. Not that it made much difference. I’m living in a very safe Labour seat, and nobody, not even Conservative Leader Michael Howard, is pretending that anyone but Labour will win the election.

There are some obvious parallels between British and Canadian politics. In both countries, a long reign of tumultuous Conservative government created bitter hostility in the masses which led to the “left”-of-centre parties (the Liberals in Canada, Labour in the UK) gaining power. Each has subsequently maintained power by shifting to the right (“New Labour”) and encroaching on traditionally- conservative economic policy, while keeping liberal social policy. The UK, though, is a little behind Canada in the cycle — here Britons will re-elect Labour for a third consecutive majority while Canada’s Liberals achieved that in 2000.

In Canada, it was the strong but controversial leadership of Jean Chr├ętien which led to those three Liberal majorities. Eventually though, Chr├ętien was undermined by his own finance minister, Paul Martin, who had always desired the leadership. Martin was also seen by many, including the media, to be an agent of change in government. Martin, they said, would end the corruption and cronyism and would listen to the people and his own caucus for a change. He would regain the trust of Canadians. (Canadians are trying, as I type, to keep a straight face.)

In the UK, Tony Blair is a strong but controversial leader who will win his third majority despite the nay-sayers and despite Iraq, but he faces an immense challenge from his finance minister (or rather, his “chancellor of the exchequer”), Gordon Brown, who sees things differently and who is seen by many to represent the real Labour Party. Brown will set Her Majesty’s ship back on the right course.

Unfortunately for Paul Martin, the Liberals sank from majority to minority in last year’s election thanks mostly to a scandal of their own making, and now they appear poised to lose power entirely. Those who pay attention to the chattering of the Canadian scribes also know that Martin has earned the nickname “Mr. Dithers” in the national press gallery for his inability to take a stand on anything, ever. Martin’s fortunes would probably be even worse, actually, if any of the opposition parties ever acted like they actually had something to say about, you know, governing. Predicting the next election in Canada will be difficult since most voters will be holding their noses as they mark the X.

So, the real question is: who’s taking bets that within two or three years Blair will resign, Brown will take over and everyone will be surprised when Brown isn’t able to keep the ship afloat after some deep-seeded scandal breaks the surface. And yet, the Conservatives will be unable to capitalize because their leader is, let’s be honest, not really prime minister material, and frankly their views on Quebec the EU and immigration immigrants are out of step with the average Briton. Meanwhile polls say that people support Liberal Democrats policies, but the party is, like Canada’s New Democrats, the perennial also-ran unable to gain seats thanks to a political system that favours a two-party race and thus encourages strategic voting. (“I’m going to vote for the party that I think people like me will probably vote for even though I don’t really like them.”)

There is one difference between Canadian and British politics of course. Canada has one strong party which advocates independence for Quebec. Britain has several parties which advocate independence. And like their Quebec counterparts, they win seats in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but unlike Quebec, none of those places is large enough in political terms to have an effect on the election. Imagine Ontario being 80% of the country instead of 33%, and you have an idea of England’s dominance on British politics. (Imagine Toronto being ten times larger than Vancouver, Montreal or Calgary, and you’ll then also understand London’s relationship to the rest of the country.)

Of course, the Scots and the Welsh don’t complain as much now that they have their own parliaments to manage their own affairs. Maybe Quebec could learn something? Oh wait….

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Previously: Don’t Forget Your Backpack

Subsequently: Take This Liberal

May 2005
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