American Politics Revived in Britain

Nicholas Clegg's moment may be fleeting, however

In Britain, an American-educated third party politician is riding a wave of American-style rave reviews after an American-style television debate to an American-style bounce in pre-election polls. Nicholas Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is now (suddenly) the most popular politician in Britain, and the eyebrows of the political elite are struggling to out arch their unusually frozen arch-i-ness.

Clegg is even being peppered with American-style analogies -- last week's debate was his "Iowa" moment, in that the threshold issue for Clegg was to persuade British voters that he and his party are plausible leaders, and that voting for the LibDems won't waste a vote (much as, or similar to, Barack Obama's having to convince the Democratic establishment that he could win white voters in Iowa).

Irony of ironies: the calcification of British politics may be dissolving because of an American-style scandal: members of parliament were caught padding their expense accounts. (British style scandals are sex scandals, and gay conservative politicians were being caught in flagrante delicto well before Larry Craig was in a baby, I mean.) Clegg is being compared to President Barack Obama: "He's the outsider, the face of an antipolitics movement -- or anti-old politics, at least. He's the man who will "do things differently" and is mining widespread discontent with two party politics and the Westminster village elite, particularly among younger voters."

And it could happen, although it probably won't.  British politics are still fairly tribal, and the system already includes the space for a third party, which must be built up district by district. Putting Clegg into office would require his liberal Democrats to increase their share of the vote by two thirds -- and there just don't seem be enough seats where they'd have a shot. (In Britain, a party can win a majority of the votes cast nationwide and end up with the third most seats in parliament.)

Predictably, an American-style counter-reaction from the entrenched parties: now Brits have to decide whether the Liberal Democrats have a serious and substantive and mainstream platform. (If you read it, and bear in mind Britain's political history, it's actually not very radical.)

Still, Clegg's moment could be -- to borrow an American metaphor -- a flash in the pan. A foreign policy debate is Thursday.

As Britain flirts with American-style politics, we hear complaints at home that America has become Britain: the system perpetuates the status quo, narrows the differences between the two parties, makes it virtually impossible for the party in power to push through substantial changes to policy. This comparison is less apt, though, because in both countries, party allegiance is waning; ideological allegiance is surging, with the parties merely being the vessels for ideology, rather than the captains of the ship.