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Why do we need to know about the British elections?

Labour's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, right, Conservative leader David Cameron, center, and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, left, prepare to take part in Britain's second televised election debate, in Bristol, England, Thursday, April 22, 2010. Photo: AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau

Bank bailouts. Deficit spending. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The issues that have come to define the American political landscape in recent months are now playing out across the Atlantic, as voters in the U.K. prepare to choose their next government. Britons will go to the polls Thursday to re-elect Prime Minister Gordon Brown or send his chief rival, Conservative Party Leader David Cameron, to Downing Street. And the result could have far-reaching consequences for U.S. and international relations.

Until recently, the contest was a dull affair, attracting little notice outside of Europe. But the sudden emergence of a charismatic third-party candidate, Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, has riveted the nation and upended British politics. Clegg’s popularity, if it endures, could prompt a dramatic shift in U.K. policy, and alter the country’s “special relationship” with the United States.

Clegg’s surge in the opinion polls could also prevent either of the major parties from winning a clear majority in the House of Commons, leaving the country with a “hung parliament.” Some have warned that such an outcome could paralyze the government and stir unease in the global economy.

“There’s this prediction that if you had a ‘hung parliament,’ somehow the markets won’t trust it,” said Susan Scarrow, a professor of international relations at the University of Houston who specializes in modern European politics. “They will expect that a government that doesn’t have a single-party majority will not be able to take the hard financial choices that are needed.”

Scarrow cautioned, though, that no one quite knows what would happen if either party failed to win a majority in parliament. The uncertainty of such a situation, she said, is what has made the British election so unpredictable — and so compelling to the rest of the world.

“It really is such uncharted territory,” Scarrow said. “Partly what’s interesting is, even the British don’t quite know.”

Here are some other reasons the U.S. and the world are paying close attention:

The ‘Special Relationship’

With memories of Tony Blair being cast as “Bush’s poodle” still fresh in voters’ minds, all three leaders have vowed to seek more independence from the United States. Still, Cameron and Brown have both pledged to work closely with the Obama administration on international issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, and Conservatives have even criticized Brown for souring relations with the U.S. Clegg, meanwhile, has been outspoken in his opposition to U.S. dominance, promising to end Britain’s “slavish” relationship with Washington and criticizing what he has called “default Atlanticism.”

While few expect Clegg to become prime minister, his views on the “special relationship” could prove important if his party wins enough seats to force a coalition government with Brown’s Labour Party, or perhaps even the Conservatives. In such an arrangement, Clegg would likely win a key government post, perhaps foreign minister, which could dramatically reconfigure Britain’s relationship with the U.S. “If the Liberal Democrats were to take the foreign office, you would see a radical restructuring of British foreign policy,” said Nile Gardiner, a contributor to Britain’s Daily Telegraph and scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Clegg “would significantly transform Britain’s relationship with the U.S., and seek to shift Britain toward a pro-European agenda.”

Financial regulation

All three parties support President Obama’s push to rein in the global financial sector, but some are willing to go further than others. Cameron has called for scrapping the country’s top regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority, saying the agency failed to stop the economic collapse. Clegg, meanwhile, has proposed an even more radical solution, calling on the government to break up large financial institutions into retail banks and investment banks, similar to a proposal by President Obama to ban proprietary trading at commercial banks. If Clegg wins enough seats in parliament to force a vote on the matter, it could scramble international efforts to build a consensus on financial regulation and force American banks to change the way they operate in the U.K. But some observers have pointed to a potential upside for the U.S. If regulation in the U.K. becomes too stringent, London-based financial companies could quickly migrate to New York.

Bank taxes

Brown implemented a tax on bank profits in December, but has resisted other measures to claw back government bailouts for flailing banks unless world leaders agree on an approach that includes each of the world’s major economies. Cameron, meanwhile, has sought to emulate President Obama by promising unilateral action, saying he would impose a tax on banks to recover the money the British government spent to prop up flailing investment banks. Clegg has called for the government to limit bonuses at failing banks, prompting industry leaders to warn that financial activity could migrate from London to New York and erode the U.K.’s tax base.

Nuclear deterrence

British leaders are debating whether to continue funding the country’s Cold War-era nuclear deterrent, a submarine-based missile system known as Trident. Cameron and Brown have promised to keep the program intact, but Clegg has called for it to be scrapped, saying it costs too much. Clegg’s critics have used his opposition to Trident to paint him as naive and unprepared to return Britain to its place as an independent global power. Clegg, in turn, has cited President Obama’s recent push to decrease the world’s nuclear stockpiles as evidence of the U.K.’s outdated thinking on this issue. “He obviously has pointed to Obama and said, ‘Look, even the U.S. is trying to rethink defense priorities in the 21st century,” said Harold Clarke, a principle investigator with the British Election Study, which has examined voting trends in the U.K. since 1964.

‘Posh’ vs. ‘Mr. Bean’ vs. ‘Cleggmania’

Perhaps more than ever before, the personalities of the three candidates have been central to the election, with the candidates engaging in nationally televised debates for the first time in British history. “They were important all along, and now they’ll be even more important,” Clarke said, adding that each of the party leaders was doing his best to channel Barack Obama. “Clearly they were influenced and took great note of Obama’s campaign style, and they’re trying to emulate this, and that’s true of all three of the parties.”

And yet some have been unable to overcome widespread public anger toward the political class. Brown has been ridiculed for his seeming lack of social skills, prompting one opponent to label him “Mr. Bean,” after the bumbling British television character. Cameron has attempted to portray himself as young and energetic, but his relatively privileged upbringing has reignited old class divisions in the U.K. and earned him the unfavorable label of “posh” among younger voters.

Clegg, meanwhile, has exploded onto the British political scene, inviting comparisons to Obama and stirring what commentators have called “Cleggmania.” Once an obscure third-party politician, Clegg now has more Facebook fans than both Brown and Cameron combined, and his party has overtaken the ruling Labour Party in the polls. And as a sign of his youthful appeal, Clegg’s supporters have taken to Twitter to defend him from his Conservative critics. When Tory tabloids began to savage Clegg after his sudden rise in the opinion polls, British Twitter users invented a new hash tag, #nickcleggsfault, to mock Conservative opponents who blamed Clegg for all the country’s ills. The tag became one of the most popular Twitter search terms in the U.K.

Related story: Meet the candidates for prime minister

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