An American in London gets almost nostalgic for a two-party system

Many American ex-pats who live here — like me — are flummoxed by cricket, local slang (e.g. “chuffed” means “pleased”) and the weather (climate change is a sunny day). And then there are the politics.

Britain holds a national election on May 7. Last week the leaders of the parties fielding candidates for Parliament held a nationally televised debate. Had such debates occurred decades ago (the first one wasn’t until 2010) that would have meant the leaders of the Tories and Labour, with a “u.”

But in today’s fractured British politics the list includes the leaders of five more parties. They’re the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales — home to Penrhyndeudraeth and Snowdonia, places that attest to special linguistic and meteorological attributes.

The debate among the seven would-be prime ministers was a lively and pugnacious scrum. British media declared the debate to be both entertaining and enlightening, for the most part, and I shared that assessment. But certain aspects of the debate left this American even more befuddled than a test match, whatever that is. Here’s why.

Nicola Sturgeon was hailed the next day as the big winner by much of the British media. “Nicola Sturgeon was the undoubted star performer,” wrote the political editor of the Financial Times. The Guardian compared her performance with that of David Cameron, the incumbent prime minister: “Cameron was robotic, but Sturgeon impressed.”

The catch is that the articulate Sturgeon leads the Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP. Her mission — as she acknowledged in her opening statement — is to break up Britain by having Scotland become independent. Scots voted against independence in a referendum last September, but the SNP’s membership rolls have surged since then and the party hasn’t given up.

It’s sort of like Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Civil War general, running for president after his defeat at Appomattox. To be clear, the SNP is seeking secession via the ballot instead of the bullet, as the American Confederacy did. Still, the Scottish Nationalists’ avowed aim is to dismember the United Kingdom, which one might think would alienate many Brits despite Sturgeon’s rhetorical charm. Instead quite the opposite has happened. While voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can’t vote for Sturgeon’s party because it is only fielding candidates in Scotland, there’s been plenty of social media chatter from non-Scots wishing they could vote for Nicola.

The men seemed scripted, for the most part. Cameron was competent but clinical, focused on his “stay the course message,” touting Britain’s economic rebound from the financial crisis and determined above all to avoid a game-changing gaffe. Post-debate polls gave him good marks, but no knock-out victory.

His governing coalition partner, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, vigorously attacked Cameron and kept apologizing for his own mistakes, such as consenting to university tuition hikes and other unpopular Tory measures. That was less surprising than it might seem, in light of polls showing the Lib-Dems have suffered from partnership with the Tories.

Ed Miliband was passionate but peculiar, his expressive eyes wider than usual when Clegg demanded that he apologize for helping to plunge Britain into financial crisis as part of the last Labour government. Nigel Farage of anti-immigration UKIP lived up to his reputation for being ostentatiously outrageous, complaining at one point that Britain’s National Health Service was squandering national wealth by treating HIV-positive immigrants.

The women, though, defied expectations. Sturgeon somehow seemed the responsible rebel. Natalie Bennett of the Green Party was even-keeled, belying her reputation for being easily flustered. (“Occasionally one just has a mind blank,” she explained after a disastrous radio interview in February when she couldn’t answer basic questions about housing policy.) Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru wasn’t wholly provincial.

Foreign policy was barely mentioned in the debate. Britannia once ruled the waves, but now the people who want to be prime minister seem determined not to make any waves in international affairs.

Polls show that no party is likely to win an outright majority in Parliament. So there are myriad possibilities for coalitions or less formal partnerships among the seven. The new government might be so fragile, pundits here say, that Britain will need another national election later this year.

It all left me reflecting on a country with political “normality.” A country where just two parties, not seven, are vying to lead the nation. Never mind that one of those parties alone has more than seven candidates with disparate political philosophies.

And what about a country that started with a revolution to abolish the privileges of hereditary power? Unless, of course, you are the son and brother of one former president campaigning against the wife of another former president.

And finally, how about a country where the campaign isn’t concluded in a tidy and compact six weeks, but instead stretches over two full years, leaving everybody involved exhausted and spent — financially and otherwise? Is that normality, or what?

God Bless America. And God Save the Queen.

Paul Ingrassia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his coverage of Detroit’s auto industry, is managing editor of Reuters.

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