A noticeable and unnerving trend has taken shape in the lead-up to this year's British national election: with an influx of advisors and consultants who made their mark on the American national political stage -- including former Kerry campaign manager, Bob Shrum, and former White House communications director, Anita Dunn -- the election called for May 6th has taken on an unusually superficial tilt. What is being deemed the 'Americanization' of British politics has seeped into all aspects of the campaign -- in the aggressive use of social-networking sites, re-scripted and neatly packaged personal narratives, and the prominent role of the candidates' wives. And last Thursday, a half-century after the United States held its first nationally televised debate, the British finally had their own.
In a well-executed effort to avoid any semblance of spontaneity, the three candidates -- Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg -- provided viewers with ninety minutes of pre-prepared, easily digestible, uninformative statements. With seventy-six ground rules -- screened questions, no back-and-forth, no audience reactions -- these three candidates did all they could to strip the British public of an opportunity to learn about what's on offer before they head to the polls in three weeks. This is particularly significant for this election cycle, as the Labour and Conservative parties have done a poor job at distinguishing themselves from one another.
To be clear: this trend towards pomp and pageantry is not new. Its recent incarnation began when Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell tag-teamed to turn Downing Street into a non-stop, highly skilled spin-operation that went far beyond the likes the British had ever seen. Yet, this election cycle has paved new ground in pursuit of the American model, as all three major parties have pulled from resources and methods from across the Atlantic. Going forward, the real fear here must not be that this marks the culmination of a recent intensifying pattern, but that this might only just be the beginning.
Of all the potential forms of 'Americanization' within the political arena, the coup de grace would be an attack on British parliamentary procedure. The lack of a codified constitution is a double-edged sword: while change can often be slow in parliament -- House of Lords reform came about a century late -- as law-makers wrestle over the lack of clarity governing the rules, adept political players can move swiftly and without attracting much resistance, as Tony Blair did in reforming Prime Ministers Question Time.
Were British parliamentary debate to go the way of PMQT and be whittled down to mirror the superficiality of the American system, it would be a great shame. These debates hold up political accountability and ministerial responsibility in a legitimate way; they ensure that when a Member of Parliament acts, he must have both the knowledge and skill to defend himself within this adversarial arena (it's not for nothing that the House of Commons chamber was designed to place the government and opposition party benches two sword lengths apart). There is no cowering behind well-crafted, poll-tested language that define U.S. Congressional floor speeches.... not yet anyways.
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