In Britain, change you can bereave in

“Westminster, the mother of parliaments,” the candidates, commentators and columnists like to say, usually with an insouciant flourish toward Big Ben. It’s such a trippingly familiar cliche, so Englishly replete with the hand-me-down vanity of tradition, the authority of history, the sonorous tic of convention.

It’s also infuriatingly wrong. A dim misquotation. What John Bright, a radical Quaker politician, actually said in the election campaign of 1865 was, “England is the mother of parliaments.” A very different proposition. Westminster is just one of Mother England’s children, and now looks increasingly like an aged, intransigent delinquent, unfit for society or purpose.

When Americans come to London they usually say how much they love the history, the tradition, the splendid tumpty-tum of things whose very repetition has become their point. I think mostly they say it because they think the English like to hear it, and it’s polite to compliment the odd customs of foreigners in their own homes.

There is, though, something smugly comforting about the smoothness of conventions worn shiny with time; the sense that we do what our fathers did, that it is all OK because it has always been OK.

Well, now it’s not OK. The conventions are strangling, suffocating and mugging us. They are inappropriate and incapable of accommodating events. The British election, which will be decided on Thursday, looks like the most destructive or creative — depending on how big your house and your pension plan are — since women got the vote in 1918.

Britain is chin-deep in the mire of the worst financial crisis for a generation, grasping at the straws of recovery, braced for the inevitable spending cuts and tax increases to pay off the gambling debts and avoid becoming the Greece of the North.

Britain is fighting a mourned and resented war in Afghanistan, and the public service unions are winding up for a season of opportunistic strikes. The politicians are smeared with the shame of a scandal over personal expenses that has caused hangdog resignations and early retirements. They have never been held in greater contempt by the people who employ them.

And yet, this whole campaign has been dominated by Byzantine arguments about the process of politics. It’s been monopolised by the politicians avoiding questions about their policies and finances as if they were being asked about their digestion.
They have, however, spoken to — or at least at — one another. The high point, the big new idea of the campaign, has been the first American-style televised debates.

Very American, seeing as the major-party leaders — Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labour, David Cameron of the Conservatives and Nick Clegg of the resurgent Liberal Democrats — were allowed to pose and prose without the added confusion of any Scottish or Welsh candidates or those of smaller parties like the Greens and the assorted far-right xenophobes.

The debates have been seen not so much as breaking a tradition as starting a new one. They have been rigorously rehearsed and monitored: the audiences were forbidden to respond in any way, including clapping, sniggering or snoring. Still, they’ve added a dash of ‘X Factor’ low entertainment. Voters who don’t ‘get’ politics do get Simon Cowell’s version of democracy.

Cameron, the Tory, is personable — your mother would like him. A fresh-faced character who tries, and fails, with emotionally winning oratory. He always sounds like the coxswain urging the rowing team to pull together and straighten their straw boaters.

We look at Nick Clegg and try in vain to imagine him going toe-to-toe with leaders like Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel or even the Queen of Tonga. In any other decade, the best he could have hoped for would have been a post as a junior minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, an ambassador’s bag-carrier. He speaks five languages but can’t say boo in any of them. His children all have Spanish names.

A long wait

Gordon Brown is a character from a tragic opera, twisted by ambition and a Presbyterian sense of fateful destiny. He has waited 13 years, mostly in Tony Blair’s shadow, for this poisoned chalice and has a pessimist’s luck. He wrestles with an Old Testament temper, and it’s said that he has no friends. Certainly, none of them have come out to contradict this. Last week he was recorded by an open microphone petulantly calling a respectable working-class woman he had just spoken to in the street a ‘bigot’. Off the record, his advisers say they are quite relieved — it’s usually so much worse.

We can argue till we’ve turned blue, and have, about who ‘won’ the debates, which concluded on Thursday. But the point is they’ve only emphasised that this election is not just between politicians, it’s all about politicians. They changed nothing. What has changed everything is the return of the Liberals. Like a soap opera character you thought was dead, they have shunted and shaken the binary nature of the ancient parliament. All the talk is of coalition, but nobody knows how that’s going to work, or even if it will work. Everything is up for grabs, and everyone’s grabbing.

The childish building they do government in is designed for the tradition of back-and-forth, confrontational, two-party politics. But if nobody wins a straight majority, the Liberal Democrats will have to make an alliance with either the Labour government or the Conservative opposition. Their price will be that future elections will use a proportional representation system that closely matches the percentage of votes a party wins nationwide to its share of parliament. It’s a voting method popular in Europe and the newer sort of federated nations, but utterly alien to our ancient, hidebound, conventional system.

The one thing everyone knows for certain is that something needs to be done. We’re in a fix, and we need something to fix it. We have, over centuries, arrived at a parliamentary system that is bad-tempered, deeply unfair and embarrassingly clumsy. For a start, the United Kingdom has more legislators than any country except China. The upper House of Lords has more than 700 peers — not a single one of them elected, but more than 20 are bishops. The Labour government got rid of hundreds of hereditary Lords a decade ago, but the business has been left half-done.

The Commons isn’t much better; it has some 650 elected members. Everyone agrees that’s too many. Members have little power or purpose — they sit out their lives in tearooms, gossiping and making trouble. Two-thirds of them have seats that are so safe they barely need to turn up.

All the tradition and history and precedent has left the most venerable and smug of parliaments in a parlous place. When you look at traditions closely, examine what they really are, you realise they’re made up of layers and layers of deferrals, delays, indecisions, tomorrows and long lunches. Their very weight and awkwardness defy examination and smother change. They are the immovable object that sits with its back to the unstoppable force.

Other people’s traditions look charming and decorative and exotic. They’re nice places to visit on holiday, but you wouldn’t want to live with one. They’re like having a mad, invalid aunt in the attic. And while those of you with parliaments that make no claims to motherhood may smile with a certain self-satisfaction at the comeuppance of Westminster, be aware that the American system was also based on an adversarial two-party confrontation, borrowed from England.

All too soon, the inertia of competing arguments can lead to a comfortable stasis. You find you do it this way because you’ve always done it this way, time flies and, before you know it, you’ve grown a tradition where there once was a view.

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