The Brits Know How to Have an Election
Put me down as an Anglophile. London is a great city. Winston Churchill was, and I know I’ll get an argument, the indispensable man of the 20th Century. Theater, music, literature, quirky humor, lukewarm beer, whiskey from Scotland – I really like the mother country.
The British have their challenges, needless to say, but the recent election there is a reminder of how much Great Britain has to teach us about conducting a spirited and quick national election, making a decisive change in leadership – again quickly – and doing it all with a fair amount of style and class.
Gordon Brown, the just ousted prime minister, will never be confused for Churchill, but it was hard not to admire the way he left Downing Street yesterday in route to hand his resignation to the Queen. Stiff upper lip and all that.
At the same time, David Cameron, the 43-year-old leader of the Conservatives immediately became the youngest prime minister in 200 years. You win an election in Great Britain and poof – you move in at No. 10. You wonder if they had time to change the sheets.
You must also admire the speed and decisiveness with which Cameron and Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg closed a deal to forge the first genuine coalition government in Britain since World War II. Clegg will be the deputy prime minister and several of his Lib Dem colleagues will get spots in the Cabinet, Britain gets a fresh start with two attractive younger leaders and it all happened in a matter of days.
As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum noted, the British system worked beautiful and now the Tories confront the nation’s economic troubles in full partnership with the left of center Liberal Democrats. Each party has a stake in working on the details and fixing the economy. It may not work in the end, but some how all the players seem to have been trying to find the best path for the country once the voters had spoken, and not very decisively at that.
I’ve had a running debate with my much better half for years over the relative merits of the British and American systems. As our politics have become ever more polarized – can you imagine Barack Obama and John McCain negotiating a power-sharing arrangement – and voters feeling like Washington is less and less accountable, I find the parliamentary system to have more and more appeal. Key members of the ruling party in Britain actually run departments of government. They must propose and defend their own budgets and plans. They must stand weekly for questions from the opposition.
Its not any fun to lose an election in Britain, I know, but its not often an occasion for prolonged transitions and public agonizing. Tradition demands a certain pace and, after all, the Queen is waiting.
What would our system be like, in a variation on the Brits’ approach, if the president drew his cabinet from the leading members of his party in the Congress? Hillary Clinton could still be in the Senate and Secretary of State. Ken Salazar could run Interior and still be the Senator from Colorado. How about Barney Frank running the Treasury Department or the Securities and Exchange Commission? OK, maybe not. But, you get the point. Separation of powers problems aside, with a hybrid American-British system we’d have more accountability and if the president lost a key vote in Congress – bam – national election. It wouldn’t hurt us to shorten up our transition, either. In the modern age, from election day to January 20th is an eternity. The British do it better.
I know, as my better half says, what are you thinking, or smoking? Still the British, with all their problems and challenges, have something to teach us about four-week long campaigns, the ability to quickly and effectively form coalition governments and a chance to provide real change and accountability for those running the government.
After all, it’s not like we have the perfect system. We could learn some things. Might do us good.