An Englishwoman in Washington

'Only one aspect of the UK election has so far aroused the interest of the US media - the total collapse facing the British Conservative Party.'

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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You have to be a pretty dedicated anglophile to follow what is going on in the UK from this side of the pond.

If you were simply to rely on even a reputable US broadsheet for your information, you would have a rather distorted view of events. The Washington Post’s UK coverage in May, for instance, consisted of a piece on the return of Ronnie Biggs, an article on the national decline in church attendance, and a Sunday feature on why George W Bush is to blame for the crumbling cliffs of Dover.

The announcement of the UK election was relegated to a brief paragraph in the World in Brief section.

The mainstream US media is not very interested in what is happening outside the USA. Foreign affairs make the headlines only when there has been a major disaster – and then often only if it involves US personnel. The rest of the time, foreign news stories tend to be along the lines of the white cliffs of Dover feature – quaint, quirky and not particularly relevant.

For the avid follower of British news it is possible to piece together a vague sketch of how the British election campaign is panning out. We do know that Labour is likely to win. This intelligence can be gleaned from occasional reports on National Public Radio (NPR) and broadsheets like the LA Times and the New York Times, which have attempted to make sense of the campaign for US readers. But beyond the outcome, the rest of the campaign is a bit of a blur.

Only one matter so far has aroused any real interest within the US media – the total collapse now facing the British Conservative Party. The impending election has brought into sharp focus just how the political landscape has changed in the UK over the last decade.

US journalists, many of whom still idolise Margaret Thatcher, find it hard to make sense of the sheer scale of the Tory failure. They reason that UK politics are normally in sync with the USA. The Tories are promising tax cuts like George W, so why are they doing so badly?

Some blame the Tory leader William Hague for his party’s dismal prospects. The LA Times bemoans the fact that he failed to take advantage of Labour’s problems: ‘The Tory leader has failed to capitalise on the government’s perceived bumbling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, high fuel prices, major flooding and Labour Cabinet crises, such as the dismissal of Blair aide Peter Mandelson in a scandal.’

In the US press, Hague is a complete no-mark. It is doubtful whether even senior diplomats would recognise him if they met him. Consequently Tory prospects are blamed on his personal failings. As the LA Times explained, ‘The public is far less enthusiastic about Blair today than it was four years ago. Fortunately for Blair…Hague is more unpopular’ (1).

Others sense that the annihilation of ‘once the mightiest vote-getting machine in Europe’ could not all come down to Hague’s personality. The New York Times at least considered the possibility that what worked for George W Bush might not necessarily work for William Hague. One correspondent noted that ‘a campaign based on tax cuts may be a misreading of the priorities of the middle class. Voters seem more interested in pledges of more money for health, education and transportation at a time when public services are crumbling’ (2).

But beyond this kind of idle speculation, the election coverage does not really go very far. Issues that have aroused interest in the UK have been totally passed over here. UK prime minister Tony Blair’s warning about voter apathy was reported here and there – but to US readers it is difficult to see his problem. From the perspective of a nation where barely 50 percent of registered voters turn out for any election, UK ‘low turnout’ worries seem a little misplaced.

For the most part, the US coverage of the UK election is to date minimal and uncritical. In fact, US journalists tend to gloss over all the problems that may exist in the UK, in order to deride the much-hated US political system.

As the Baltimore Sun explained, the British election should be looked on with envy not criticism. ‘Once again, Britain will demonstrate how to hold an election quickly, on the issues, with spending caps, subsidised TV, high turnout, and a decisive outcome even with a minority winner.’

The paper continued: ‘No chads in the UK. The voter marks a paper ballot for a member of the House of Commons. The ballots are counted in each district after the polls close. That result is official. The leader of the party winning a majority of seats becomes prime minister. It is low-tech and efficient.’ (3).

Would that things were so simple here.

(1) LA Times 9 May 2001

(2) New York Times 15 May 2001

(3) Baltimore Sun 10 May 2001

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Topics Politics


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