British political historian explains the role of class in UK elections





Typically, encounters between British prime ministers and their political enemies here are immature exercises in name-calling in front of baying rows of overstimulated legislators in the weekly contest known as prime minister’s questions.

The televised debates among the three men competing to run the country after next week’s election were meant to provide a corrective to that, replacing the histrionics with gravity and purpose. But their main effect, it seems, has been not to get people thinking about issues so much as to accelerate a different trend entirely — the move to an American-style obsession with personality politics....

But if the process has become more American, it has done so with a British flavor, so that what has come to matter most is each candidate’s particular style of Britishness. Britons remain obsessed with the minutiae of social distinction, and the candidates have gone into elaborate contortions in their efforts to present themselves as ordinary working people. The Labour leader, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose father was a Scottish minister and who became a left-wing student leader at the University of Edinburgh, can plausibly get away with this. It is a harder act to pull off for David Cameron, the Conservative leader, and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats....

Emphasis on such details encourages the candidates to think more about presentation and less about pressing issues like how, exactly, they intend to reduce the $248.4 billion annual deficit, said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history and the director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. “Given the seriousness of the issues,” he said, “this election campaign is living in a parallel universe to what is going to be going on after May 6.”...

Professor Fielding and others say that at a time like this, personality — particularly the kind that flourishes in heavily choreographed 90-minute debates — is the last thing the voters should focus on. “Glib fluency in front of the camera might win over TV viewers, but it is not an indicator of a politician’s genuine stature,” the columnist Leo McKinstry wrote recently in The Daily Mail.

Mr. Fielding said that viewers who see politicians performing on television start to regard them, in a sense, as protagonists in fictional dramas. “It’s not that they confuse them with TV characters, but that they see them in the same framework,” he said. “The leaders’ debates exaggerate that by encouraging voters to focus on the minutiae rather than on the policy.”...


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