We arrived in London not realizing our trip was in the middle of the UK's general election campaign, which was scheduled from March 30 to May 7. It was not a happy moment when we figured out we would experience two election campaigns between now and December 2016.
But the British are civilized about elections, perhaps because they all agree that the National Health Service is a good idea. But they also restrict the entire campaign to five weeks, and they're generally polite to each other, no matter the issue. When Ed Miliband, the Labour candidate, accused David Cameron, the Conservative candidate, of creating the mess that has thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, their argument quickly left the refugees behind.
Cameron: It is unfair of you to say that.
Miliband: It is unfair of you to call me unfair.
Cameron: It is quite unfair of you to call me unfair when I call you unfair.
And so on. There's a fight-in-the-sandbox feeling to this election, reinforced by the schoolboy appearance of the three main candidates. They are all boys, at least by my current foot-in-the-grave standards: Cameron was born in 1966, Miliband in 1969 and Nick Clegg, of the smaller Liberal Democrat Party, in 1967. They all went to Oxford or Cambridge universities. Were they the only three candidates, I would have thought it was 1965, and I was back at Wood River High School, listening to Mr. Gammache, our English teacher and class adviser, tell us it was important to run for class office, even as sophomores, because good people had to run for office if democracy was going to work.
Fortunately for Britain, there are more candidates. While it's more civilized, British democracy shows us the fragmented future of American democracy. It's what happens when two major parties, corrupted by a financial elite, differ only in one becoming neo-liberal and the other becoming neo-conservative, which is to say they become twins. (In Britain, the Liberal Democrats have been in an unhappy coalition with the Conservatives, so they can be regarded as a kind of Conservative junior-forest-ranger fraternal twin.)
All the major parties ignore the elephant in the—no, strike that—they ignore the large elephant turd steaming on the dining room's hand-tied oriental carpet: The British national economy has been living on derivatives and real-estate bubbles. The bubbles keep getting harder to blow, but everyone is afraid of prices going down instead of up and up. So people argue about what they can't control, while encouraging speculation, setting interest rates that take the risk out of speculation, and inventing derivatives that create wealth out of thin air.
When major parties are poorly-disguised versions of the same thing, single-issue parties gain traction. The British equivalent of our Tea Party is UKIP, championing an independent Britain for people who want to "take our country back." The Green Party is gaining adherents among the scientifically-literate, who are concerned that climate change will turn a green and pleasant land into a windswept desert. In Wales and Scotland, nationalist parties are agitating for independence. While it looks as though there will always be an England—climate permitting—the permanence of the United Kingdom is in doubt.
A debate among all seven candidates revealed that, in contrast to Idaho, even the fringe parties in the UK have leaders who can face a television camera without disgracing themselves. In particular, Nicola Sturgeon, the also-young leader of the Scottish Nationalists, is an articulate, hardened, and sensible voice for economic justice. She won the debate because she was willing to put the truth in clear, if somewhat burry, English. She's perceptive enough to state that a government that is good for the common people of Scotland would be just as good for the common people in the rest of the UK. If the Scottish Nationalists ever start running candidates south of the border, they'll pick up the disaffected voters who feel Labour has sold out to the bankers—the lot of them, in other words.
Upon our return to Idaho, we will be hit with a much longer and much less civilized political campaign, one with larger elephants and larger elephant excretions. The stakes will be higher, at least on the surface. More money will be spent on ads, more words written by pundits, more issues of dead refugees and misguided wars will be raised, more immigrants will be seen as threats, and far more people will be threatened with bankruptcy because they lack health insurance.
But it will all likely come down to two people—Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, or two entitled somebodies like them—who will lie when they open their mouths about the economy. They, too, will ignore the bubble economy propping up American oligarchs. They, too, will ignore the interest of the common Americans when those interests conflict with the desires of their major donors. They, too, will continue to exist in the unreal world of sophistry and legalisms their universities have prepared them for.
It's enough to make you vote for the Scottish National Party. And to hope that American presidential candidates will be standing under the appropriate end of the elephant when they make economic policy statements.