A spectre has risen within British politics. After 13 years of a Labour government that spanned 9/11, the Iraq War and global financial meltdown, profound disillusion with centre-left politics has given way to the resurgence of polarisation. If the polls are to be believed, when the British people vote on May 6th, they are now choosing between a resurgence of liberal idealism offered by the Liberal Democrats and a return to paternalistic, small state governance promoted by the Conservatives. Both parties style themselves as the Party of Change, and after thirteen years of first Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown attempting to bring the British society together, we are once again having to choose between right or left.
Few Americans will recognise Nick Clegg on the left as he was largely ignored by the mainstream media until he stood on the podium alongside David Cameron and Gordon Brown in UK's first ever televised debates, using his comparative anonymity to maximum advantage. Admittedly, some are already tiring of his "don't-believe-those-old-parties" mantra. But with the UK recession not yet bottomed out, Clegg's fresh and radical proposals (raising the tax threshold to '$15,000', capital gains tax from 18% to 50%, and giving an amnesty to long-term immigrants) have reintroduced a romanticism to British politics that many are yearning for, especially as they face a grim economic reality.
Out-manoeuvred on the left (Labour abandoned their hopes of winning a mandate that way many years ago) Gordon Brown is now campaigning negatively against Cameron in order to raise the centre ground. Casting the Conservatives as the party that would destroy the recovery through swingeing cuts to public services, he also portrays them as too privileged to empathise with ordinary, hard working, decent families. Fighting for his political life, Brown has not held back on using fear mongering, class war and memories of the bad old days with Margaret Thatcher to shore up his position: it's not an attractive spectacle.
Cameron, meantime, has done his best to talk up a credible compassionate conservatism -- but like George Bush, it hasn't stopped him from reverting to type. In this final week of campaigning the Conservative leader has threatened to stop benefits for those already reduced to '$98.00' a week through unemployment and held onto his much-derided tax break for the top 3% of earners. His headline call for a Big Society where volunteers take over the work of government has only underlined his inability to see how the vast majority of British workers live. With barely enough resources of time or energy to bring up their children, the prospect of taking on the recreation of their local community is not a vote swinger.
Having come to Britain at the age of three, I still feel profoundly alienated by the main drivers of British politics -- class, history and geography -- all of which proceed along strongly dualistic lines. The argument between the meritocratic British middle class view of the world (different from the American middle class) and the care-centred, working class perspective is hard to straddle. Because their differences have been masked by a levelling out of earnings in the mainstream of society, it is difficult to spot the tribalism that continues unabated. Unless, like me, you have never been get adopted or accepted by either. Neither long hours nor under-employment will earn me my working class credentials; no professionalism or family tree will gain me entry to the British middle or upper class. And in this respect, I'm happy to be excluded.
The historical and geographical dualities, however, are even more challenging for me. With a Dutch mother, I do have some of those global imperialist genes carried by the Brits. With an Indonesian father, I also appreciate the defensive, island mentality that pulls Britain back. But maybe because I have had to integrate these apparently conflicting impulses, I have found it hard -- along with other first- and second-generation immigrants -- to accept the ongoing schizophrenia of British identity. One minute they want to lead the world with systems, ideas and even armies; the next they want to withdraw from the European and global community, and be freed up to make its own laws for its own people. For us immigrants, the centre ground we yearned for was less the space between two poles and more a transcendent identity -- something which could cope with and include these multiple ways of being in the world, all of which appear to be so quintessentially British.
Within this context, when it began in 1997, New Labour and its Third Way politics was a very welcome phenomenon. Partnership between public and private, the state and civil society, free market capitalism and democratic socialism -- here was a radical centre never before experienced in British politics. And within a culture of partnership, balance and bridging divides, sexual and ethnic diversity became a focus of social development: very slowly in the ranks of political leadership, but exponentially in the arts, business, media and sports.
There are many books written about why New Labour and the Third Way could not be sustained but it seems that for now, the moment has gone. Rather than shore up the centre-left, Clegg is in danger of becoming the Ralph Nader candidate, splitting the liberal vote and handing it to the Conservatives. And if that happens it will be an uncomfortable few years for those on the margins, unable to perform and deliver in Cameron's Big Society.
But maybe a period of right wing government is just what the left in the UK needs to lead them to a revaluation of the centre ground. The political wilderness is a great place to play, experiment with new forms, develop new networks and dream big again.
Meantime, as the governor of the Bank of England pointed out this week, whoever wins this election will have to deal with the most difficult financial problems the UK has ever faced and as a result will probably not get elected again for a generation. That's a spectre which is haunting the whole British political class, of whatever stripe.