One of the joys of America's media is how it doesn't really cover news occurring outside the USA unless it has the allure of what my pal Bill Maher astutely designated "disaster-porn". A few hundred thousand lives taken and/or disrupted by earthquakes ... air flights suspended because of volcanoes ... American students abroad accused of sex-related murders... -- that's good eyeball fodder. Allows for endless updates and breathless reports from flown-in, blow-dried anchors -- brows suitably furrowed. What's not to wallow in?
So you may not be aware that there is a General Election underway in the UK. It should be of interest for two reasons. (1) The outcome will probably affect the USA. (2) Elements of it are as bizarre and juicy as any Monty Python skit and full of the soap opera twists so beloved by political junkies.
The Story So Far... (and of necessity this is extremely condensed. Do your own digging for more background)
Britain has three major political parties and some minor ones advocating either regional separatism (think of Texans wanting secession) or White Supremacy (think of the wettest dreams of most tea-baggers).
On Thursday May 6th, about 60% of Britain's approximately 45 million voters may rise above their general apathy to elect 650 Members of Parliament (think a House Of Representatives without the decisive thrust). People vote for candidates representing the various parties. Whichever party secures at least 326 members -- the leader of that party is invited by Britain's glacial Queen (think Helen Mirren without the charm) to form a government. And that leader becomes Prime Minister -- a position that (in US terms) is a cross between President, Speaker, Senate Leader and Simon Cowell.
If no party secures an outright majority, it leads to political horse-trading that would make the original Mayor Daley blush.
The main contenders for government (and yes I am going to explain how Harry Potter fits into all of this) are the three leading parties.
The Labour Party (that's how the Brits -- including William Shakespeare -- spell the word). Been in power for 13 years. Once led by the charismatic Tony Blair (a man who the late Peter Cook would have described as a proven lawyer) -- who after three runaway election victories (including two historic-proportioned landslides) was ditched in favor of the dour Gordon Brown (a personality like Robert Novak without the optimistic sparkle).
The Conservative Party. Were in power for the preceding 18 years (11 of those under Margaret Thatcher) and managed to do to the British economy and social fabric what 6 years of Luftwaffe bombing in World War II failed to do. Not that all was bad under the Tories (to use their party nickname). There were huge strides made under Thatcher. Suicides (especially of private business-owners) went to a record high and Britain's soccer hooligans who had been over-shadowed by other nations in the Labour Party-run 70s - really hit their stride inspired by the social wastelands created by Thatcherism and were able to kill many more rival fans than your average South American football supporter. Significant achievement against the much-hated "Argies" and other Latin nations that revel in spicy foods with more vowels than consonants. (The British suffer from Irritable Vowel Syndrome).
The third party -- the Liberal-Democrats -- haven't been in power since before Robert Byrd was in diapers and that gives it the freedom to choose leaders and senior figures who are, to use the clinical term, "doo-lally-tap". One leader, Jeremy Thorpe was married to a cousin of the Queen -- which didn't stop him being put on trial for conspiring to murder his gay lover. (The plan misfired and his hired assassin shot the boychick's pooch). Another leader, Menzies "Ming" Campbell decided to nickname himself after a 14th Century Chinese vase. Their current "Home Office" (legal affairs) spokesman, Chris Huhne, goes around telling journalists that his mother (a local amateur dramatics actress of no discernible repute) portrayed Superman's mother in Hollywood movies -- though all public records and his own mother indicate that is definitely not the case. In other words this third party attracts people who are liable to be one Ross short of a Perot...
Now prior to the global recession that brought down the British economy along with the rest of the Western world, the Labour Party had delivered some considerable achievements to the bankrupt nation it inherited in 1997. Vast improvements in health, education, welfare, crime reduction etc etc
But three problems prevent that indubitable fact being a passport to electoral success for them in 2010.
First of all the memory of Tony Blair velcro-ing himself to George W. Bush on Iraq still disgusts a majority of thinking voters.
Secondly, successor Gordon Brown's personality and face is like chewing on really sour bitter lemons.
Thirdly, electorates don't "do" appreciation. Remember the famous scene in Monty Python's Life Of Brian? "What have the Romans ever done for us? Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health..."
That's how it is with a large percentage of British voters. Labour rescued them from a bankrupt, morally-destroyed society with public services in tatters -- and the nation has been eternally ungrateful ever since. The fact that the Conservatives would undoubtedly return the country to its pre-1997 free-for-all -- cunningly disguised under the corruption of a John Lennon song title as a policy called "Power To The People" -- is immaterial. Half of Britain's voters have been numbed by a non-stop diet of soggy chips, tepid beer and soggy, tepid reality TV, into a state of irreversible stupidity.
The Conservative Party just a few years ago was dubbed by one of its own senior figures as "the Nasty Party" because its persona was of unashamed disdain for all people -- and most inanimate objects -- that weren't like itself. White, Anglo-Saxon, superficially-Protestant, xenophobic, Europe-hating, pro-fox-hunting, anti-welfare, anti-public health care, anti-immigration, upper-class twits. The party had almost in-bred itself within one chromosome of extinction when it voted as its new leader an ex-PR flack for a lowest-common-denominator TV production company. Sign of the dilapidated times indeed.
David Cameron is an oleaginous smooth operator with the callow look of a lawyer who gets pop-stars off heroin charges by fast-talking the cops. He of course immediately improved the fortunes of his party by aping Tony Blair (who had genuinely modernized the Labour Party) -- by creating the illusion of making the Nasty Party compassionate. Air-brushing the angry-white-man image with faux concern for the environment and talk of hugging the hoodies (the disaffected youth who swarm Britain's sub-suburban centers.)
The party diehards (still reactionary to the core) have held their noses on the grounds that this veneer job might gull sufficient ignorant working class voters to vote against their economic self-interest. Don't laugh. Look how many poor people in the USA bought the 2000 model "Compassionate Conservative" -- a political lemon that turned out to be the new millennium's first Edsel.
Meanwhile the Liberal-Democrats elected as its new leader a small unprepossessing urchin with the well-scrubbed gleaming complexion of a schoolboy. Nicholas William Peter Clegg ("call me Nick") is a 43-year-old junior version of David Cameron. Uncontaminated by experience except as a bureaucrat at the European Parliament he is the perfect everyman. He blithely conceded in a TV interview that he had bedded some 30 women in a short space of time -- earning him the nickname "Cleggover" -- a "legover" being a laddish euphemism for a swift shag. Perhaps an indication of the increased productivity the UK could expect under his leadership. He has skillfully followed Groucho Marx's advice of learning how to fake sincerity. Now -- in the shallow culture that is 21st century UK -- the rest is just down to winning the political version of Britain's Got Talent.
Last Thursday, the British people had their first-ever televised debate among the three party leaders. The conventional wisdom going in was that Gordon Brown would appear as his usual stammering cadaver. Dead Premier Walking. Nick Clegg would be seen for the aspiring gadfly he is. And David Cameron would rise to the top like a supremely anointed mannequin. That is why Cameron and his cronies hustled hard to get these debates.
But alas something went wrong with the plan. Brown appeared stolid and stoic -- an unphotogenic bull mastiff of a man -- but he didn't stutter. And though dull as ditchwater, he gave a passing semblance of a man who knew what he was talking about. He also rattled Cameron's chain -- causing consternation to show on Cameron's android features. But the hero of the hour -- with massive after-debate poll bounce to prove it -- was little Nicky Clegg. Unhindered by the likelihood of ever being elected Prime Minister, Clegg skillfully played the "plague on both your houses" card so cleverly used in the 1992 presidential debates by Ross Perot.
Britain, despite its reputation for a stiff upper lip, is a nation that can succumb to mob hysteria and group-think faster than you can say Diana car crash or Susan Boyle. And just like the latter -- Clegg has instantly risen to British fame. It can only be a matter of hours before Ashton Kutcher discovers him on YouTube and starts bleating -- sorry TWEETING -- about him.
"The Most Popular Englishman Since Winston Churchill" blared several British headlines in the debate aftermath. (I kid you not.) And this was just 48 hours after barely anyone but the chattering classes and political junkies had ever heard him speak for more than the 3 minutes he is allotted during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions.
But now he is the Susan Boyle of politics. Without the Bulgarian tractor-driver's eyebrows and the public thumb-sucking. And likely to remain the new flavor of hysteria for at least a week. But of course it is dreaming The Impossible Dream to think that being thought likeable by 10 million brain-numbed viewers watching what was a glorified TV talent contest will translate into election victory on May 6th. Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system coupled with the residue of three Blair-led election wins means that even a 10% swing towards his party in the next 3 weeks would not translate to actual victory. The best he can hope for is what is called a "hung parliament". Not quite as phallic as it sounds -- it simply means that no party has an overall majority -- and then Gordon Brown and David Cameron will both come a-wooing to seduce Clegg into forming a coalition government with one of them. At which point doubtlessly Nick Clegg's experience bedding 30 women will come into useful play.
But what of Harry Potter I hear you ask? Ah thereby hangs a tale.
I freely confess that the delights of the literary skills of J. K. Rowling have thus far eluded me. Wizards and schoolboys do not entice me as subjects for a good read. My loss I'm sure.
But my eye was caught by a new op-ed piece on the topic of the British election by J. K. Rowling in that most august of British newspapers, The Times.
Now that she is a multi-billionaire, rolling in the gargantuan fortune that the Potter franchise has yielded her -- I naturally expected that this self-made woman would be urging her fellow citizens to elect the party most likely to lower her enormous tax bill. The Conservative Party.
But in one of the most poignant, eloquently argued essays I have ever read on the topic, this woman with riches beyond most of our wildest dreams, simply recounts the rhyme and reason why enlightened progressive policies in favor of ordinary people matter more than all the shallow appeals to greed and self-interest. Harry Potter's creator has a message that deserves to be widely read. And not just in Britain. You can read her brilliant piece here.
I will return with occasional updates during the British election campaign.
GORDON BROWN________DAVID CAMERON
NICK CLEGG_____________HARRY POTTER