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'Bigot' gaffe jars with British presidential politics

  • 30 April 2010
Britain is entering new and uncharted political territory this month. For the last 60 years, its governments have either been Conservative or Labour and have almost always commanded a majority in the House of Commons. But almost every opinion poll for the last few months has predicted a hung parliament in which no administration could be formed without the support of the Liberal Democrats. Britain faces the prospect of its first coalition government since 1945.

The other transition that has been taking place in British politics has been much less dramatic — in fact so slow and gradual that many people don't seem to have noticed.

I was only 12 years old at the General Election of 1979, but I remember an American music teacher at my school saying that, if she had a vote, she would 'vote for Thatcher'. She was quickly corrected — she could vote Conservative, but not for Thatcher, because it wasn't a presidential election. Thirty years later however, it is noticeable that people now commonly talk about voting for Brown, or Cameron or Clegg, apparently unaware that only a few thousand people in the constituencies of Kircaldy & Cowdenbeath, Witney and Sheffield Hallam will actually be able to do that.

Presidential politics has well and truly taken over.

Some attribute this to the influence of the United States. Others to Tony Blair, not only for his 'presidential style' in which Labour's appeal to the people came to rely more and more on his personality, charisma and persuasiveness, but also for a presidential style of government in which debate in parliament, and even in his own cabinet, was circumvented in favour of 'sofa government' — the driving through of Blair's own initiatives, guided by 'focus groups' and a cabal of close advisers.

One of Gordon Brown's first acts when he became Prime Minister was to prohibit politically-appointed advisers from giving orders to civil servants — an aspect of Blair's presidentialism that had most irked the civil service. For a moment it looked like the drift towards presidential politics might be stemmed and some semblance of parliamentary democracy restored.

Such hope was short-lived. Revelations in the last couple of years about MPs' expenses, in which the taxpayer turned out to have footed the bill for, among other things, the purchase of a floating duck house by one MP and the cleaning of another's