Nick Clegg, the party leader whose Liberal Democrat party came in a distant third in the UK general election, is at this moment the most powerful man in Britain.
You might expect large numbers of Britons to be uncomfortable with this peculiar, rather undemocratic state of affairs, and to dislike the idea of the two major parties competing to win Clegg’s hand in a potential coalition. And it may well be that most ordinary people here in the UK do indeed find this strange interregnum confusing and disturbing.
However, the Liberal Democrats have such strong support in sections of the metropolitan media class (and understandably so, given that the party is considerably to the left of both Labour and the Tories on most issues, as well as fiercely anti-American and Europhile) that there is still plenty of authoritative-sounding comment on television and radio insisting that the current impasse is somehow the result of people power, and a popular rejection of mainstream politics.
You will also hear the BBC and its newspaper echo-chamber refer to the Liberal Democrats’ core platform of a radical reshaping of Britain’s electoral system as “political reform.” It is a phrase that implicitly assumes that there is something seriously wrong with the current system — and that the Lib Dems’ “proportional representation” alternative represents benign change.
It is also a deliberately misleading phrase, one almost Orwellian in its dishonesty. It is designed to make a constitutional revolution sound like mere technocratic tinkering, rather than the radical overturning of a system that has arguably functioned reasonably well for many centuries, and has certainly inspired believers in representative democracy all over the world. Unfortunately, that historical record doesn’t count for much here. And neither does the sometimes unfortunate record of proportional-representation systems in countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, Israel, etc.
This is partly because the culture of Britain’s political class is increasingly steeped in the contemporary witchdoctory of branding and marketing — and in the ignorant cult of being “modern” — rather than in history. It is also because for the politically correct baby-boomer types who have set the cultural and political tone for the last decade and a half, the past is generally a source of shame and grievance, when it counts for anything at all.
As a result, you don’t hear many voices raised in defense of a sturdy, well-liked electoral system that has enjoyed a record not demonstrably worse than that of competing systems elsewhere, when it comes to either reflecting the popular will or enabling effective government.
Perhaps even more surprising is the way there is so little sense that the current confusion — the roiled financial markets, the sudden rise to power of a crank-filled minority party, the shabby horse-trading that so often characterizes the forming of coalitions between natural enemies — will become the norm here (as NR’s editorial points out) if Britain were to adopt the proportional-representation party-list system proposed by the Lib Dems.
Those who see the latter as a vehicle for “change” at the expense of “the politicians” apparently don’t realize how much cause for cynicism they will have when all our future coalition governments are built on politicians’ deal-making across party lines.
Still, we may not have to see a sleazy deal in which either Brown or Cameron secures the prime ministership by offering Nick Clegg and his party a chance to rejig the British constitution in ways that will give huge influence to small parties filled with cranks and fanatics. It is just possible that the Lib Dem leadership, if not the crazier elements in the party’s rank and file, is so desperate to get into government that it is willing to suspend the party’s committed but self-serving insistence on such “political reform” as the price of cooperation.
It is also just possible that David Cameron and/or Gordon Brown will discover previously hidden reserves of political principle and refuse to make any deal with Nick Clegg that puts radical constitutional change on the table. But given the depths of Brown’s ruthlessness and personal ambition (see, e.g., his undermining of Tony Blair), and given Cameron’s lack of attachment to any conservative belief that might conceivably slow his route to No. 10 Downing Street, it would be a risky bet indeed.
— Jonathan Foreman is writer-at-large for StandpointOnline.