Letter from London: Coalitions, f***ing plebs and other lessons from Anglo-American politics


Nick Clegg at the Lib Dem conference this week: Some believe he won't lead his party into the next elections.


Adrian Dennis

LONDON, UK — There are many apparently growing similarities between the United States and Britain, including actors' accents — did you know for one that Damian Lewis, aka Brody in “Homeland,” was a Brit before he made his Emmy acceptance speech the other night?

However, crucial differences between the two cultures do still exist.

Here's a central one:

American political parties hold conventions every four years. In Britain, they hold them every year. Yes, Britons are gluttons for punishment. Parliament goes into recess each autumn for the parties to hold their "conferences."

If that sounds like hell to Americans, they would be absolutely right. Nothing reminds ordinary citizens of the bankruptcy of modern politics than a political convention or conference. Nevertheless, the BBC and national press cover each one as if something important is at stake.

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However, this year’s first two party conferences demonstrated some similarities to political dynamics across the Atlantic.

Case number one: The Liberal Democrats, who became the junior party in Britain's governing coalition after no party won an outright majority in the 2010 general election.

Thanks to excellent campaigning by party leader Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems won enough seats to become power brokers and joined the Conservatives in government.

Big win for Nick.

Britain is essentially a two-party state and it was the first time a coalition had ever been formed after an election. However life is no longer as sweet for the Lib Dems, whose gathering in Brighton the last few days was not a happy one.

The party won 23 percent of the vote in 2010. If an election were held today, however, polls give them around 8 percent. Party activists may be wondering whether treading into the unknown was such a great idea.

Big trouble for Nick.

The odds on Clegg leading the party in the next election are shortening by the minute.

What does that tell us? Despite participants’ best will, coalitions don't work today, when compromise is a dirty word inside and outside parties.

Coalition may also be a small reason for the current malaise of American politics. The US appears to have a two-party system, but really doesn’t: The Democratic Party is essentially a coalition between pro-Wall Street, third-way centrists and those who want to stay true to New Deal social democracy. It’s an absolutely miserable union between two sides of an almost unbridgeable gap.

The only glue holding the party together may be fear of the Republican Party getting its hands on all three branches of government.

The Republicans are also in coalition including the formerly dominant group of pragmatic conservatives who have been completely overwhelmed by the rabid ferrets of the Tea Party.

Britain has its own rabid-ferret party: United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. It may come as a surprise to hear that this island nation, un-invaded and unconquered since 1066, is not independent. But that appears to have no effect on the wild imagining of the party’s founder, Nigel Farage, who believes the UK is under the jackboot of the European Union and its commissars in Brussels.

Farage is the walking definition of a fringe politician, and yet his party now polls at the same level as the Lib Dems. Some Conservative commentators see the UKIP as a more natural coalition partner for the Conservatives than the Lib Dems.

But that’s wrong. The UKIP is like the Tea Party: If the Conservatives were to partner up with them, they would stage a reverse take-over.

That’s not the message any of the main British parties want to broadcast this conference season, but there being so little of substance, it's what comes to mind.

One of the hazards of annual conferences is that they tend to extend the news business summer silly season and throw up a scandal or two.

The one currently roiling British politics concerns Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who lost his rag with the police at the Downing Street gate last week.

Mitchell, who bicycles around central London as if it were his own personal Cambridge college quad, was leaving Downing Street — his office is in the building adjacent to No. 10, the Prime Minister's home — last Thursday evening, walking his bike. Downing Street is a short cul-de-sac leading into Whitehall. At the security gates, a policeman asked him to use the pedestrian exit off to the side.

Mitchell refused, insisting that the grand gate — the automobile gate — be opened instead. The policeman refused to break procedural rules, even for him.

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That provoked a tirade from Mitchell filled with expletives and some class-warfare type terminology. Mitchell eventually used the pedestrian gate, shouting at the cop that he hadn’t “heard the last of this!"

Doing what any good civil servant would do, the policeman made a note of the incident, including all the profane name calling.

The report claimed Mitchell called him a "F***ing Pleb!" That’s very touchy. Mitchell, like too many of Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet members, is a product of British private school (in Mitchell's case, Rugby, where he was known as a bully who went by the nickname "Thrasher") and Oxbridge. The multi-millionaire and former investment banker at Lazard is the fourth generation of his family to be elected to parliament.

In Britain, where words count, to call a cop a "pleb" is a big no-no, especially by someone from Mitchell's background.

Mitchell denied using the word. But the policeman’s note contradicts that.

It was leaked to the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph Tuesday. Here's the critical passage. Mitchell screamed: "Best you learn your f***ing place... you don’t run this f***ing government... You’re f***ing plebs!"

That's a lot more interesting than anything heard at the Lib Dem conference.

David Cameron is in New York today for the UN General Assembly opening and scheduled to appear on the David Letterman talk show tonight. If Letterman is feeling particularly mischievous, he might ask the British PM what a pleb is, and why it’s creating such a furor in Britain.