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The Nickcleggted 3rd Party

April 22, 2010

The French Cowboy has watched the first ever televised British election debate so that you don’t have to. (For the video go here, for the transcript here.) Now the shocker, if you will, of the debate is that it resulted in the Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg to rise in the polls to a level that makes him a serious contender for the upcoming national election. Else, the debate was outstanding only in the sense that it was strikingly mediocre.

Not being an expert on politics of beautiful Britain, the French Cowboy might actually be in not such a bad position to understand the average voter’s thoughts on the debate. After all, few people have nothing better to do than to concern themselves deeply with politics and, as the Public Choice theorist would say, they’re rationally ignorant. Without the burden of knowing much about the details, I find it rather obvious why Nick Clegg effectively “won” the debate. His strategy was to present himself as the honest-bloke alternative to the other two politics-as-usual, empty-promises, good-ole-boys’-club parties. On top of that, he’s arguably the most telegenic of the three candidates and he went out of his way to address the people from the audience who asked the questions directly and by name, a tactic Cameron soon copied.

During the debate, Brown liked to bash Cameron so that the two got into (comparatively) lively back-and-forths which made them look exactly what Clegg wanted them to be in the eyes of the audience: two pols bickering with each other rather than working for the good of the country. Clegg liked to begin his answers by saying that what his two rivals had said sounded all fine but was actually pie-in-the-sky nonsense designed to fool an intelligent electorate that can see right through those cheap attempts. He (Clegg), in contrast, would be honest and straightforward with the British people.

To detect the actual difference between the three debaters one had to listen closely and also often “listen between the lines”. They usually all agreed on the problem (too much crime, military needs better equipment, the NHS (which we love) is headed for disaster etc), they usually all agreed on the goal (reduced crime, well-equipped military, keep the NHS alive etc), and they hardly differed in their proposed ways to get there. (In the tradition of debaters, they liked to repeat popular opinions expressed by another contestant, but in a tone that suggested that they were actually in complete disagreement.) Only Brown, for obvious reasons, felt the need to defend the status quo before going on to say that he isn’t complacent and will work to improve things even more.

Cameron clearly is a very centrist conservative. The only point in which he distinguished himself from Brown was in his repetitive demand for more efficiency in government and the rejection of a “jobs tax” on the basis that it would be bad for the economy. In comparison, Brown could be singled out as the Labour candidate only because he expressed a strong belief in a short-term Keynesian economy. (Interestingly, his claim that ‘taking public money out of the economy now’ would result in higher joblessness (in the short term) might actually be true.)

I mentioned that Brown liked to attack Cameron, but the same is true about Clegg. (This matches the possible post-election coalition between Labour and the Liberal Dems.) Clegg repeatedly derided as unrealistic Cameron’s plans to cut spending without raising taxes and still deliver on the goods. The Liberal Democrat claimed that the “waste” Cameron was talking about was imaginary and/or couldn’t be eliminated to free up enough money to cover all the expenses. He proposed instead a tax and the closing of loopholes for the capitalist baddies (ie “banks” and the rich). On other occasions, though, he did just what Cameron had done, ie suggest that public institutions work more efficiently to cut costs.

The only clear yes-or-no disagreement was about the worth of nuclear weapons. Brown and Cameron saw reasons to keep them, while Clegg described them as Cold-War anachronisms. To bolster his argument, he pointed to the opportunity costs of keeping missiles “designed explicitly to flatten St Petersburg and Moscow at the press of a button” when “we have people on the frontline of Afghanistan without the right equipment and without the right protection”. Even if you’re like me and see a lot of things wrong with this logic, it’s not hard to imagine many voters finding some sense in it. And this was probably the most out-of-mainstream position Clegg expressed.

The French Cowboy hopes the support for Clegg’s party will be just a temporary bump that won’t last until the election. Apart from sympathy for the Brits, here are just a couple of reasons why Americans should be worried about a different scenario.

It seems to me that the Conservatives have made a big mistake in presenting themselves as only marginally different from Labour. It gave the Liberal Dems the chance to pop up as the only “real” alternative in this election. All they have to do now is convince people that they’re not way-out-there Lefties but reasonable centrists who will nonetheless bring “real change” to tired old national politics. Now, where have I heard that before?

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