The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Johnny Foreigner’s Guide to the UK Election Part III – Cursing old ladies edition

April 29, 2010

I’ve been getting surprisingly decent feedback on these posts. Some of my colleagues at work (who know more about democracy and elections than I do) have said that they felt that they were not entirely wrong or embarrassing so I’ve decided to stick with it until it’s all over next week – and then get back to blowy-uppy-thingies after 6 May.

So what did we see and/or learn in the last leader’s debate on foreign policy last week?

My first observation was that it was stupid to try and find a pub in central London that was showing the debate. In the struggle between a Liverpool football/soccer game and politics, the former was bound to win. So I had to listen to the first 30 minutes on the radio while I scrambled home!

Interestingly enough, despite having listened to the first half of the debate on the radio and the second half on the TV, I did not feel that there was a real difference in how I perceived the debate. I kind of had the impression that they were all doing about equally well. The only major difference that I noticed was that Gordon Brown actually looked a bit better than he did in the first debate. It was the best hair style I’d seen on him in years.

Going into the debate I figured that each of the three leaders had a mission:

Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) – keep it up
David Cameron (Conservatives) – ramp it up
Gordon Brown (Labour) – don’t look undead

I think, by and large, they all performed these tasks – and the polls seem to confirm this. Cameron has slightly increased his lead, Clegg has held on and Labour… we’ll they’re kind of hanging out (or were until Brown decided to say some really silly things with a live microphone on him as discussed below…)

But the difference from the first debate is that there was no clear winner. When I asked my flatmate who won, she replied that she thought it was Sky News. I think she might be right.

So Brown looked less uncomfortable but still a bit rehearsed. (Also – no one in the Labour Party should ever let him smile. Ever. It’s just not a good look for him.) Clegg had a slightly more difficult task because the LibDems are perceived to be weaker on foreign policy. They oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent (and nuclear energy in general), they are the party that is by far the closest to the European Union and possibly the least friendly to the US. Still, in this heated exchange, I think he held his ground – and did rather well. Cameron seemed to have some of the confidence that everyone expected him to have in the first debate. I think he did much better (though I came to this conclusion after two glasses of Merlot.)

But ultimately I was disappointed because I thought the foreign policy questions were pretty disappointing and in a lot of cases the answers were worse. All of the international questions really came down to domestic issues. Climate change? Insulate your house! (Although Clegg did charge Brown with failing, or being sidelined at Copenhagen… unfairly, I think.) Afghanistan? (Let’s all thank the troops! And we’ve all visited!) A visit from the Pope? (Diplomacy good! Gays good! Touching children bad! But we can all chat!)

Robin Nibblet of Chatham House was pretty critical in his assessment, noting that there were no questions on China. Inderjeet Parmar of TransAtlantia that there was nothing on the Iraq War, UK complicity in the torture of terror suspects, or any kind of troop withdrawal as well. Yet, as David Aaronovitch notes, there was a second question on immigration (which, to be fair, has become pretty much the second major issue of the campaign over the economy). The LSE’s Election Blog reaction is here.

Still, despite my disappointment with the “foreign policy” aspect of the debate, I found myself enjoying the program. Actually, so far I have liked the debates MUCH better than the US ones. They are more dynamic and interesting. I think that so far they can be described as a huge success for generating interest in the election and (with the exception of foreign policy – as discussed above) there have been some pretty good discussions on policy.

They took our jeeeerrrrbs!

The part that I’m finding most painful is the section on immigration. From my perspective as an migrant worker (of sorts) myself, the debate on immigration has been kind of offensive. We’re over-crowding Britain. We’re taking people’s jobs. (British jobs for British workers!) And even then, I am not subject to a lot of harassment that people from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia get – but only because I speak with an “exotic” Canadian accent and I’ve spent a few extra years in school.

But after nearly a month of this I’m wondering if the UK can have a sensible discussion on immigration that isn’t trying to play in the hands of some of the more fringe parties? Yes, controls are a good thing – a crucial thing, actually. But the debate seems less about what we should do about the situation the UK is in and more about numbers, jobs, council flats, etc. Have Labour’s policies actually reduced immigration? Let’s fight about numbers and statistics! Maybe this is just what is foremost on people’s minds and the politicians feel that this is what they need to respond. I’m certainly not going to pretend this is an easy issue – but I can’t help but feel the current state of the debate (literally) is a race to the bottom.

Still, if I was in one of the above categories of immigrants, I would probably be feeling a whole lot worse about all of this. Or at least a bit more vulnerable. Eastern Europeans can’t be feeling particularly welcome right now. But I guess this is the same debate that is being held in other countries, like the United States, where immigration seems to be just as toxic of an issue (although no one has started a vigilante group here yet.)

JFGTTUKE highlights this week:

1. Clegg-mania continued – kinda: Clegg is widely seen as surviving a major test with the second debate and as having potentially changed the political landscape of the UK. Labour is now considered to be in third place (if only just) or barely hanging on to second – something that was truly unconceivable three weeks ago.

2. ‘Hung’ out to dry?: The impact of this goes beyond pushing labour into third place, of course. Virtually all of the politico-media driven hype has been on the impact of a hung-parliament. Will it drive the UK economy into a Greek-like collapse? Will it mean years of paralysis and backdoor deals that will undermine the parliamentary process? Will a hung parliament kick your grandma and eat your baby?
The answer of course, is – who knows. (I’m thinking a definite “no” on the baby-eating.) But there is no question that the Conservatives have been doing whatever they can to frighten the daylights out of the electorate? But will it succeed?
Some of my political friends, (not Tories – though I wouldn’t care if they were) are saying that the spectre of a hung parliament is having an impact on how they will vote. One indicated that because he felt that because the percentage of the popular vote might now have an impact on what happens in the possible post-election negotiations, that he would now vote Labour (despite being in a LibDem safe seat) so that they may have more bargaining power.
Now this individual is politically informed (though not active) so I have to wonder exactly how many other people are feeling this way? Will Clegg-mania survive in the polling booth? Or will people resort to their old loyalties (or the two dominant parties) at the last minute. I suspect Gordon Brown is hoping that this will be the case.

3. Brown Toast? Gordon Brown was caught saying some things about an elderlywoman – a lifelong Labour Party member at that – that were far from flattering. She was asking questions about the economy and immigration (of course) – Brown pretended to make nice, but then, when he thought no one was listening called the woman “bigoted”. (And if you need something to crush your soul, look at the expression of disappointment on the woman’s face when she finds out about it.) I’m sure politicians probably feel this way a lot and say things like this behind closed doors all of the time. However, Brown got caught in a big and bad way. Will it affect voters? There is a lot of media speculation about this today. Certainly it has not helped the perception that he might be a bully, or that he is bad with the general public.

4. Foreign press coverage: I’ve noticed quite a few stories on the election in the foreign press – New York Times, Washington Post, etc. (Check out Karla Adam’s piece on political betting if you want to know the other creative ways people speculate about the election at the bookie.)

However, I’ve also noticed in the last few days that this story has been pushed aside to a certain extent by and large in favour of the speculation about the Euro and the future of Greece, Spain and Portugal.

So is there interest in the US? Are they following it at all? Always impressed that C-SPAN 3 is covering the debate (is that like the ESPN 82 of the political world?) I was impressed that Sky News had Dan Rather deliver his opinion afterwards – although I didn’t find his comments particularly insightful.

Finally *phew* – what can we expect in tonight’s final debate in Birmingham?

Well the debate is on the economy. I would imagine that Brown (while trying to say how much he admires grandmothers who have concerns about immigration in the North of England) will be defending his economic record and how well he managed a “global” crisis. There is a perception that this will be his strong suit. The other two parties will be going after this – saying that years of Labour mismanagement resulted in the UK facing a recession in a much weaker position than it otherwise might have been. They will all talk about how they will cut out waste, preserve the fragile recovery and why the other parties will basically destroy the economic foundation of the nation.

But the UK economy is in a terrible position (although, admittedly, relatively good in terms of, say, that it’s not Mediterranean or needing IMF assistance). Whoever comes in is going to have to wield a terrible axe. I think much of the discussion will be on what the best approach to do this is – Conservatives will attack Labour’s “tax on jobs” (raising the National Insurance – Social Security in the US) and Labour will say that the Conservatives will plunge the nation back into recession. Both will attack the LibDems, who will in turn say that they were warning about an impending financial crisis years before it happened.

I suspect other major issues to be unemployment – particularly youth unemloyment and NEETS (youth Not in Education, Employment, or Training), the Euro and European economy, and (why not) the impact of immigration on the economy.

As for me, the plan for rice cakes last time succumbed to pizza and wine. Now I’m trying to think what suitable economic debate food stuff will be? Probably a tin of beans. Suggestions welcomed, of course.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard