There’s something admirably old-fashioned about a British general election. Instead of the two years of incessant blather we get over here (“Just 11 weeks until the first GOP debate!” I heard recently on FOX News), the whole thing is over inside a month. The odds are good that nobody will call you in that period to ask your opinion, or solicit your money, and if you’re troubled by the politicians at all it’s likely to be in the form of a single sheet of paper discreetly tucked in your morning post asking if a particular candidate might please have your vote. I walked up and down the streets of many suburban London neighborhoods in the week before the most recent election and was struck by the almost total lack of yard signs, bumper stickers, posters, banners, badges, and all the other marketing paraphernalia you might expect to see at an equivalent moment in the United States. On the day itself, millions of Britons as usual stood patiently in line at their local village halls, schools, or churches (for many, their only glimpse at these mysterious institutions) in order to cast their ballot in the time-honored fashion. Few things about modern life are predictable, but one of them is surely that the news bulletins that night will carry reports that “crates of lost votes have been discovered” stuffed in a corner at a polling station somewhere, or that several hundred papers have been shredded by accident “and are being hurriedly taped together by hand” somewhere else. In an age of such bewildering technological change, it’s oddly reassuring that Britain’s core electoral process remains essentially untouched from Dickens’s day.
Of course, the British, by ancient tradition, are diffident, polite, mealy-mouthed, and secretive, avenging themselves on politicians only in the privacy of the voting booth. By and large, they let the rival candidates simply get on with deploying that familiar mix of argument, spin, and evasion, and highly enjoyable it all was, too, this time around. For instance, there was the agreeable spectacle of David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, partners in a government coalition since 2010, now released from their union and quickly to reach a level of pure and honest personal hatred rarely seen outside marriage. At one point Clegg revealed that Cameron had drawn up a “secret plan to cut welfare budgets, and this [would] be revived if the Tories won a majority.” Cameron responded that the paper in question was a “three-year-old document of policy options that was commissioned by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury,” who in 2012 was none other than Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat.
In time, Cameron went on to accuse his erstwhile partner in government of “desperate stuff,” and Clegg replied that the prime minister wanted to rule—as if there could be anything worse—“like a US President.” It was akin to watching a divorced couple argue about custody of the children. Of course, an audience member at a presidential debate wouldn’t have the lèse-majesté to tell the commander in chief, “You’re wrong, mate,” and the rest of the hall wouldn’t stand and applaud, as happened to Cameron. As I say, all highly congenial; and that was even before the intervention of Nicola Sturgeon, the photogenic new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose essential policy is to detach her country from the United Kingdom but remain in the European Union, in effect meaning she’d prefer to be governed from Brussels than from London. You may have thought that Scotland had recently voted against independence from the United Kingdom, and that that was an end of the matter, but Cameron has made it clear that more concessions north of the border will follow. Whether it’s “fiscal autonomy,” “devolution max,” or the “federation” bandied about during the recent campaign, the inevitable result will include granting more spending and tax-raising powers to Edinburgh.
Given the rift within government ranks, Ed Miliband, the 45-year-old Labour leader, had the election to lose. He duly did so. It would be hard to overstate the impression the unblinking, rictus-faced Miliband gave many Britons, at all levels, of being fundamentally benign but with just that touch of the weirdly robotic one associates with the sort of film where the decent folk are progressively taken over by zombies. One senior member of the Labour public-relations team, speaking, perhaps wisely, on condition of anonymity, told me, “It was like following around an alien practicing his newly acquired human skills. At various stops along the way Ed would tell a joke and carefully watch the reaction of his audience to see if they were forcing laughter, or if they genuinely understood the humor. [If necessary] I would patiently explain to him where the joke went wrong in translation.”
Another Labour advisor privately used the word narcissist to define Miliband, who espoused no coherent political platform beyond obsessive dislike of the Tories. Even that wavered in a speech at the Leeds Art Gallery, in which he insisted that “no responsible government” should spend more money than it could afford. Space prohibits a full listing of Miliband’s more loopy initiatives, but pride of place might go to his commissioning of an eight-foot lump of granite engraved with Labour’s manifesto pledges, putting one newspaper in mind of a “pound-shop Moses,” and to Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and aspirant Tory leader, evoking “some weird commie slab.” Making a strong bid for runner-up in the faux-pas stakes was Miliband’s decision to “galvanise the youth vote” by submitting to an interview with 40-year-old Russell Brand on the cloaca-tongued comedian’s own YouTube channel. Since Brand went on to urge his viewers to show their disdain for politicians and follow his lead by staying in bed on polling day, this, too, could be counted only a mixed success. Whether he was in a parking lot, a factory, or even someone’s back garden, Miliband took to lugging a full-scale lectern around with him for his speeches—statesmanlike in some views, self-aggrandizing and farcical in others. Curiously, when Miliband spoke at the last televised party leaders’ debate, he abandoned the lectern altogether and walked too close to the camera, almost filling the screen. He was Crazy Ed. As he later left the stage, Miliband took a toss on an electrical cable, lost his footing, and sprinted headlong out of the studio, still managing to wave and smile as he did so. It was a mini-Chevy Chase moment.
Throughout the campaign, we were told that the Cameron-Clegg-Miliband race was too close to call, that the probable outcome would be a hung Parliament, and that, in the words of the Times, “constitutional chaos looms . . . There will be a post-election battle on legitimacy that could last weeks or months.”
In fact, Britain rather conspicuously avoided the hanging-chad limbo beloved of the political media, and instead delivered an unambiguous verdict: Cameron by a length. As the interminable election-night TV coverage continued, one expert after another was paraded on screen claiming that his extensive research conclusively proved that the opinion polls were perfectly accurate—it was the voters, rather, who had messed up. The ludicrously pompous “Lord” Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Social Democrats, won the night’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” memorial prize. “If this exit poll is right,” he announced on the BBC, now hurriedly revising its accompanying graphic to read not “Coalition Chaos?” but “Conservative Control,” “I will publicly eat my hat on your programme.” (We await developments.) Overall, the news coverage demonstrated anew that wonderfully British flair for marrying formality and buffoonery. On one level you had the BBC, self-conscious of its position as the national broadcaster, with the increasingly regal David Dimbleby, 76, hosting the various waxworks and grandees in the studio, interspersed with shots of his colleague Sophie Raworth on “the piazza” outside Broadcasting House, with a plastic map of the constituencies, playing what looked like the world’s biggest game of Twister—right leg, Conservative; left hand, Labour—while a throng of tourists, among them apparently half the population of Tokyo, looked on in suitably awed silence at this enigmatic British ritual. On another level, there was the arresting sight of Jeremy Paxman, for many years the BBC’s political chief interrogator but now fronting an “alternative” night on a rival channel, which mainly seems to have meant the monotonous use of the F-word and the spectacle of Paxo himself standing around squeezing his hands together and bopping up and down, like a cross between Uriah Heep and Mick Jagger. Anyone familiar with the late Mike Wallace at his belligerent best need only think of that same correspondent hosting a late-night edition of Yo! MTV Raps to get some of the overall strangeness of the occasion. Over on ITV, the guests were seated in a lime and mauve “opinion suite” with abstract art tacked up on the wall. It looked like a room in a 1970’s-era Holiday Inn, and, by about 6 a.m., one urgently in need of maid service.
The highly paid pundits and opinion pollsters weren’t the only ones whose once-confident charts and graphs had to be turned upside down as the night progressed. At 10 p.m. on May 7, Ed Miliband was working on his “victory speech” at his modest constituency home in a pretty northern English village. Earlier in the evening, he had ordered Lord Wood, his head of strategy, to send a message to senior Labour ministers not to be “trium phalist” once the final result came in. A well-placed source told me that Wood in turn had shot a text to Labour headquarters in London to keep the celebrations down. In the event, there was no trouble—most of the subdued workforce shuffled home quietly, although the Daily Mail would note that some “raised voices” were heard questioning Miliband’s choice of intellectual but politically inexperienced advisors such as the Oxford professor Marc Stears, thought to have been the brain behind the granite slab. Miliband himself was said to have been stunned as the full enormity of the defeat became clear. “He was holding his head in his hands, and shouting at the television that it must be wrong,” the Mail reported. When all the figures were added up, Labour had 232 seats, a loss of 24 on their modest 2010 total. They were all but wiped out in Scotland, where the SNP took 39 of their seats and left Labour with just a single MP north of the border—Ian Murray, a 38-year-old former rock-music promoter who describes his mission as “Fighting the Tory government. Supporting generations of young people written off, pensioners dying of cold, basic services left to wither.” Somehow I’m reminded of what a recent Conservative cabinet minister told me: “The strategy was to portray Labour in Scotland as a party of left-wing nut jobs completely out of step with most ordinary Britons. It played quite well for us on the doorstep.”
Labour’s implosion was mild compared with the near-total annihilation of the Liberal Democrats. Fully 49 of their representatives were jettisoned by the electorate, leaving only a feeble rump of eight MPs in the Commons. A tearful Nick Clegg went on television to suggest that his party had been “punished” for being associated with an unpopular Tory government. Of course, another explanation might be that the Lib Dems had revealed themselves as a sanctimonious bunch of poseurs of no political fixed abode, with a manifesto that offered little beyond a few greeting-card pleas for world peace and social harmony, and that the British electorate in their wisdom had simply tired of them. In the immediate aftermath of the stalemated 2010 election, Clegg had earned the nickname “Madame Fifi” for batting his eyelids at Gordon Brown and then hitching his skirt to David Cameron. There were certain senior Conservatives who privately said that they would prefer to leave government entirely than be forced into another marriage of convenience with the coquettish Lib Dems. Clegg surely rendered himself irrelevant by his self-pitying, blame-the-Tories analysis of what was a straightforward electoral defeat; having essentially climbed into bed with Cameron on a giddy postelection high in 2010, he could hardly complain about waking up with an ideological hangover five years later. The former Lib Dem leader David Steel rightly said that it would take his party “decades” to recover.
In all, then, an invigorating time to be in Britain, where the birth of a royal princess, the election, and the 70th-anniversary celebration of V-E Day came together in a week-long rush that brought the Union Jack bunting out onto the streets and a squadron of wartime fighter aircraft into the blue skies above London. At times, there was an almost dreamlike quality to the proceedings. On the morning the result was announced, no fewer than three party leaders resigned from office: Miliband and Clegg, both blaming the electorate, and the beer-quaffing populist Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), who also stood down, only for his party chairman to say that he would not accept the decision because UKIP’s election campaign had been “a great success.” (The party won 13 percent of the national ballot, or some 3.9 million individual votes, but only one parliamentary seat.) These warm, fraternal words were later undermined when a second colleague went into print to describe Farage as “snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive,” and to claim he risked turning the party into a “personality cult.” As of this writing, UKIP apparently remains more concerned with tearing itself apart than with formulating a fresh appeal to the nation at large. For now, it survives as one of those raucous parties of the nationalist right that appear to have little interest, intellectually, in winning over anyone not already signed up to their program.
Lest all of this sound like an unmitigated triumph for Britain’s Conservatives, that party’s joy may be tempered by the widely accepted fact that the election result was a tale of two nations. In England, David Cameron effectively swept all before him. In Scotland, it was a different story. Five years ago, the SNP won just under one fifth of Scottish votes and a mere six parliamentary seats. Today, Nicola Sturgeon has 56 seats and owns the country. Once again, we await developments in the rumbling campaign for Scottish secession from the Union. The political significance of SNP’s signals that they intend to be “heard” in Westminster will be a further, likely convoluted, debate on the merits of a federal system as opposed to a unitary state. The constitutional significance is that the Tories have their work cut out for them in laying any claim to the “legitimacy” (a word frequently heard during the campaign) of their mandate in Scotland, and that the United Kingdom may yet face the prospect of dismemberment. For now, Cameron and Sturgeon are the clear winners of the election. The losers are nearly everyone else, chief among them the pollsters and the BBC, whose election-night coverage ranged from the incoherent and listless to the satirically inept and biased. As the full horror of the result filtered through, the Corporation seemed to go into official mourning over the phenomenal losses suffered by Labour and the Lib Dems. It was like watching a state funeral. Since the BBC is of course funded by a mandatory “license fee” of some $240 per annum for each television-set owner, regardless of his actual viewing choices, we can expect a spirited debate on this particular tax in the days ahead.
In the meantime, the fraternal agreement between the centrist and radical-left wings of Labour, hastily patched together for the election, appears to have given way to a renewal of that body’s recurrent civil war. “Fraternal” is the operative word here, as Ed Miliband’s brother David, himself a former leadership candidate, sent a tweet from his home in New York that read, “Heart goes out to great colleagues who lost seats. Deep and honest thinking required to rebuild progressive politics.” Other Labour bigwigs have lined up to criticize the party’s drift to the left. David Blunket, the home secretary under Tony Blair, said, “We’ve got to examine these results very carefully, and learn the lessons of reaching out with One Nation policies.” His colleague Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, added that “Ed Miliband has pulled us back rather than pushed us forward.” A few disaffected Labour activists are also demanding that Chicago-based David Axelrod, a sometime campaign aide to Barack Obama, return the $460,000 he was reportedly paid to advise their party. Labour MP John Mann described Axelrod’s role as “invisible,” claiming he had done little more than fire off some “ludicrous” transatlantic emails, in which he consistently misspelled the name Miliband. Given that it was such a cataclysmic outcome for Britain’s left, the GOP for their part might do worse than to hire David Cameron’s team to advise them on the 2016 presidential election. There have been claims that Cameron himself, who became Tory leader in 2005, may stand down at some point during the next five years, in which case the smart money would be on 44-year-old George Osborne, the chancellor, to succeed him, although I’m not alone in entertaining hopes for my old friend Owen Paterson, the former environment minister, who told me he wants Britain out of “the padded cell” of the European Union, but still at liberty to trade both in Europe and elsewhere. Stranger things have certainly happened, one of which came on the night of May 7 when the voters of greater Inverness in Scotland rejected the steady-as-she-goes Labour foreign-affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander, and instead chose as their parliamentary representative a lesbian university undergraduate named Mhairi Black, at 20 years old the youngest sitting MP since 1667. Somehow, it was that sort of election.