At last, the worst-kept secret in British politics is out: It was announced earlier this week that there will be a General Election on May 5 and that Tony Blair would win it.
That last bit wasn’t officially announced, of course. Unlike Zimbabwe or (at time of writing) most of the Middle East, Britain does not have post facto elections. It is nonetheless true that the prime minister’s governing Labour Party will almost certainly win a third full term in office, albeit with a reduced parliamentary majority. For the next four weeks, there will be much excitement over in political science, and anywhere else inhabited by those unfortunates who share my pathetic level of interest in the exact swing required to unseat the sitting MP in, say, Erewash (7.2 percent, since you ask).
Such amateur psephologists are giddy at the likelihood of embarrassingly low turnout that could conceivably fall below the levels in America and Iraq. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, lack of enthusiasm for Blair; and secondly, lack of enthusiasm for anyone else. The former was inevitable, as the sunshine-and-lollipops mood that greeted the new Labour government in 1997 could only have been sustained had the prime minister gone door-to-door dispensing Haagen-Dazs.
Blair’s trump card is the economy: Since he was elected, Britain has enjoyed strong and steady economic growth, far better than that of its Euro-zone neighbors. However, economic competence alone is unlikely to save him — especially in urban areas with large Muslim populations — from reaping the whirlwind of Iraq. The American Frank Luntz, writing in the London Times, mused that a possible campaign strategy for the anti-war Liberal Democrats could be “posters plastered throughout traditional Labour constituencies of a smiling Tony Blair looking wistfully at a smirking George W. Bush over a simple four-word slogan: ‘Need we say more?’ Trust me, it would work.”
He’s right, it would. Although the official Conservative Party opposition will finish second, the Lib Dems are in the happy third-party position of being able to say what they like in the knowledge that they won’t be required to form a government. In this role as a trash can for unwanted votes, they will position themselves as the smallest big tent on the ballot and win seats from both larger parties. With low turnout, they may well take as much as a quarter of those who actually bother to vote.
(This may or may not include me. At the time of last year’s mildly hilarious elections to the European Parliament, I did not receive an official voting card. As I pay tax but can’t vote here, my democratic identity seems to have vanished somewhere over the Atlantic. Quick, somebody tell GESO.)
Another election will have taken place by May 5, the cause of which led Blair to postpone his own poll announcement as a mark of respect. Doubtless the prime minister, an Episcopalian married to a Catholic, was truly saddened, for the late Pope was a great man: member of the Polish resistance, theologian and teacher, committed pastor and defender of the oppressed, warrior for freedom and the dignity of all. The extent of the sorrow evinced over the past week has offered a cogent reminder of his influence and the adoration he inspired.
This influence remains strong in America. It can’t have escaped the DNC — including Howard “Republicans are the Dark Side” Dean — that Sen. Kerry, although Catholic, lost the Catholic vote in Ohio to President Bush, a Methodist. “Moral values” were cited by over 20 percent as the greatest influence on their vote last November, and it was the potency of this term that handed Ohio Catholics, and thereby the election, to the president.
“Moral values” will barely register on the radar back home, public professions of morality being regarded as in slightly bad taste and politically suicidal. The prime minister recently stated that abortion, as a “matter of conscience,” should not be an election issue (in England and Wales last year, there were 181,000 abortions). Although personally antipathetic, Blair has never voted to limit abortion, once arguing that he could not “in conscience force my view on women” — a remark that permanently lost him the respect of the Scottish churchman Cardinal Winning.
When instructed by the late Cardinal Hume not to partake of the Catholic Mass, Blair’s response included the rhetorical question, “I wonder what Jesus would make of it?” This sort of petulant appropriation of God somehow defines an age unable to quite grasp that His Holiness did not oppose abortion or the ordination of women due to personal caprice or an old man’s whim, but from his position as the inheritor and communicator of ancient beliefs that, if true, hold the key to the role of humanity in the universe. If able, I will vote for Tony Blair; but, as a shoddy Episcopalian, I mourn for John Paul.
Thank you, Karol. Requiescat in pace.
Nick Baldock is a second-year graduate student in the History Department.