Simon Schama: Three-Way Race for the UK's Top Slot

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Schama is a University Professor of art history and history at Columbia University.]

Once upon a time, almost two and a half centuries ago, there lived two systems of representative government, separated by an ocean. English was their common language, and talk of law and liberty their common habit, but there the resemblance stopped, for one was fair and one foul. On the eastern shore, the body politic was engorged with money. Venal interests bought the services of legislators and rewarded them once their dirty work was done. Swarms of lobbyists battened on the body politic. Election rhetoric was disingenuous cant punctuated by maddened rant. But in the west, baptized by revolutionary fire, there unfolded something fresh: a democratic politics that (though averting its gaze from the enslaved) was open in manner, radical in utterance, mistrustful of the moneyed interest, and fruitfully unstable in party allegiance.

How times have changed! Fast forward to the present and behold Hanoverian America, while eastward, look! The land is bright! The phlegmatic British, infuriated by revelations of the serial abuse of parliamentary expenses, have bestirred themselves to threaten the domination of the Labour and Conservative Parties, and could be on the brink of ushering in something that looks suspiciously like democratic rebirth. Unless all polls are deluded, a third party, the centrist Liberal Democrats, may win enough seats in the May 6th general election to deny either of what its young leader, Nick Clegg, calls “the old parties” a working majority in the House of Commons. More dramatically, the price for Liberal Democrat support will be a referendum on radically altering the way legislators are elected. In place of the first-past-the-post system, which has made it impossible for third parties to break through in significant numbers, some sort of proportional representation could be put to a national referendum....

In the runup to the final debate, Brown was struggling to shift the campaign from a charisma contest to a more traditional battle of policy. Too bad then, that, after an I-really-care doorstep conversation with a Labour voter, an open mike caught him sounding off about the “bigoted” woman he had just been talking to. Heartfelt apologies and a rueful confession of his shortcomings at the start of the third debate may have limited the damage, but, shaking his head theatrically, Brown still managed to exude a gloomy fatalism. Cameron, on the other hand, no longer the brittle tyro of the first debate, projected the manner of a very British kind of conservative—eager to berate bankers for their wicked bonuses. Though early signs of Clegg fatigue may be showing, and though in the debate he, unlike the others, refused to stoop to the popular immigrant bashing, his party seems on course to gain a bigger share of the popular vote than Labour and enough seats to deny the Conservatives a parliamentary majority.

If that holds, we will find out whether Clegg—whose party, under the current system, will be awarded proportionately far fewer seats than either of the others—has the stuff of the revolutionary parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell in him (minus the disagreeable beheading of the monarch). Cameron has recently been hedging his responses when asked if, to get to Downing Street, he would pay Clegg’s price of a referendum on electoral reforms. That’s because if such reforms—which have already been adopted in elections for the Scottish and Welsh legislatures—were extended to Westminster it would almost certainly mean the end of the two-party system. The really shocking, really thrilling thing is that many Britons, faced with this prospect, seem ready to say, Goodbye. And good riddance.

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