Christopher Caldwell: Notes from a strange election

"Abortion debate shapes UK election," ran an odd headline in the Boston Globe in March, after Michael Howard, leader of Britain's opposition Conservative party, had said a few soon-forgotten words about adjusting the legal time limit for terminating pregnancies. In the weeks leading up to next Thursday's election, US journalists have been casting about for ways to make Britain's parliamentary race intelligible to Americans, who are used to viewing politics in terms of "values" and personalities. In vain.

Part of the problem is that Baroness Thatcher has kept a low profile this election season, depriving her US fans and foes of an ideological benchmark. Part of the blame rests with Mr Howard's decision to place his fate in the hands of Australian, rather than US, consultants. This has resulted in an election that is more about feints and strategies to depress Labour turnout and encourage protest votes than about issues. Those issues that have roiled the British electorate, from asylum seekers to dirty hospitals, have not won much interest in the US.

At least not until The Mail on Sunday ran parts of a memo by Lord Goldsmith, attorney-general, of March 7 2003, which Tony Blair, the prime minister, used to justify the legality of the Iraq war. With that leak, and the subsequent release of the full document, the British campaign came to mimic the US presidential race of last year, when a drive to vituperate George W. Bush's "lies" regarding Iraq took the place of political debate. Mr Blair's opponents, Mr Howard not least among them, are succumbing to the same temptation. The US movement was played out in Democratic blogs, books and bulletins, led by the website MoveOn.org and Michael Moore, the film-maker. The "lies" of Mr Bush were pronounced "sickening" and "nauseating", as was Mr Bush himself. One hears the same hyperbolic (and gastric) tone in Brian Sedgemore's recent account in The Independent of why he abandoned Labour to join the Liberal Democrats. Mr Sedgemore proclaimed the "demise" of Britain as a liberal country, deplored Mr Blair's "stomach-turning lies" and drew comparisons between the British justice system and the medieval Star Chamber.

In defence of what the Democrats did, three things must be said. First, their "lies" campaign was unofficial, carried out mostly by immature zealots. The Democratic National Committee did not produce (nor did its candidate John Kerry endorse) any equivalent of the Tories' new campaign poster, which shows Mr Blair against a blood-red background, with the slogan: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election". Second, it was arguably Republicans who started the cycle of mud-slinging years earlier, with their campaigns to tar Bill Clinton as "Slick Willie". Finally, the Democratic crusade to paint Mr Bush as a liar had a Machiavellian justification. It was very successful in driving up voter enthusiasm and attracting volunteers and contributions.

But it must also be remembered that the Democrats lost the US elections by several million votes. The problem is that small-d democratic politics is a realm in which it often pays to be vague rather than precise. Those who demand perfect clarity from their opponents wind up hoist by their own petard when they cannot provide such clarity themselves. That is what happened in the American election. Mr Kerry saddled himself with an illogical position on the Iraq war. He claimed to favour the Iraq intervention, since to do otherwise would have cost him the votes of moderates. But he also claimed to oppose every single war decision made by Mr Bush, since to do otherwise would have cost him the huge contributions of money and time by all those voters sputtering with anger at Mr Bush's "lies".

This is Mr Howard's predicament exactly. On one hand he admits to having backed the war. On the other, he objects either that Mr Blair went to war "without a plan" (in which case Mr Howard's own backing does not look particularly sensible) or that he should have levelled with Britons and given them another rationale for going into Iraq (in which case the war Mr Howard thinks was necessary would not have taken place). Charles Kennedy ought to have a much easier time speaking logically on the issue. His Liberal Democrats, after all, have opposed the Iraq war unambiguously from the start. But when Mr Kennedy was asked last week if he would be content to see Saddam Hussein still in power, he replied: "The best outcome would have been if the international order, through the moral authority of the United Nations, had been able to achieve a peaceful Iraq without the war and the invasion taking place." This is hard to argue with. It also happens to be the often-stated position of Mr Blair and Mr Bush.

It is understandable that Mr Blair should be the one called to account for the way reality and myth have grown indistinguishable in British politics. Like Mr Clinton before him, he is the first leader of his country to operate according to the rules of computer-age corporate public relations, taking account of the internet, 24-hour news cycles and precision targeting of media. What is different in Mr Blair's case is that his countrymen have never fully accepted this system of "spin" and political salesmanship, which has been a way of life in virtually every Western country for a decade or two. British resistance to manipulation by political marketers evokes the same kind of response abroad that US outrage over Richard Nixon's electoral chicanery did during the Watergate scandal. For foreigners, it looks like evidence of both an enduring decency and a charming naivety.

When sensational journalism sets the tone of political conversation, with talk of "sexing up", "dodgy dossiers" and "lies", it gets less and less plausible to claim Mr Blair has a monopoly on distortion. Those who monitor politicians have their own version of spin. Scrutiny escalates into abuse.

The Goldsmith memo is set to damage Mr Blair among certain voters. Some will be taking a principled stand against Mr Blair's use of spin. But most will have been hoodwinked into thinking ill of Mr Blair by the spin of others.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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