Great Britain is heading for a new general election, and last week it had its first televised debate. The two main parties, the ruling Conservatives and the Labour Party, are neck and neck in the polls. The fate of smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the Scottish National Party, are up in the air. Many are predicting a hung parliament with no clear majority, in which case the government would come out of backroom dealing with alliances between one of the main parties and one or several smaller parties. It's all very exciting.
It's within this context that Great Britain had a major televised debate between the leaders of the major contending parties. And it was... bizarre.
Such debates are not part of the British tradition, and it showed. Unlike the Americans and the French who vote for a president, Brits vote in parliamentary elections for parties. In theory, at least, they just vote for their own representatives, and the Queen chooses as prime minister the leader of the party that won the polls. Technically, no one is "running for prime minister." This is why there haven't been American-style (at podiums) or French-style (at a table, like good French people) televised debates of this sort until very recently.
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The oddity was magnified this time by the fact that the debate included not two or three debaters, but seven. This is, again, a bizarre thing.
Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system favors a bipartisan system, and there are really only two choices for prime minister: Conservative Leader David Cameron and Labour Leader Ed Miliband. But the British people's dissatisfaction with politics as a whole has led to the quite unusual rise — sometimes just in polls, but sometimes also in elected officials — of smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats could not be excluded because they are in government. The Scottish National Party runs Scotland, so it could hardly be left out. UKIP is so high in the polls. And so on. But the end result was that a stage was shared between two credible future prime ministers and a bunch of smaller-time politicians just happy to be on prime time TV.
But it wasn't just the format that was odd, it was the content.
The first striking thing was the repeated chanting from the book of common prayer of Britain's august national religion — no, not Anglicanism, the National Health Service. Anyone who understands health policy (or who lives outside Britain) understands that Britain's NHS is an absolute disaster. Unlike every non-communist country on the planet, Britain doesn't have some sort of government health insurance scheme or guarantee to insure universal health care. Instead, the entire health system is directly owned and run by the government. (Americans have their own mini version with the VA, and they know how terrible that is.) No other country in Europe has been foolish enough to mimic this, and anyone with a lick of sense knows that the problem is not how much the government spends on the NHS, but the very structure of the thing. The NHS is enormously expensive and enormously inefficient — and not infrequently, criminally so.
And yet, in a country that's supposed to be the last bastion of free trade and pro-market thinking in Europe, worship of the NHS retains its inexplicable appeal. All politicians must bow to the NHS god and sacrifice half of the government's money to it. Even Margaret Thatcher dared only touch it cosmetically. And not only must the god be placated, but there is only one way to placate it: money. In the debate, though no one dared say it out loud, everyone agreed with the premise: The health of the NHS is directly proportional to how much money is spent on it. (On the American right, there is a similar problem with the Pentagon.) The main debate between Cameron and Miliband about the NHS was who would spend more money on it and why the other candidate was such a terrible person for cutting it. (Remember that Cameron is supposed to be the candidate of hard-nosed fiscal conservatism and free markets.)
In France, where I live, there are private hospitals and private doctors, and the country tops the league tables for health rankings, and everyone poor and rich receives excellent health care. (Not that the French system doesn't have problems — the point is that it's perfectly possible to have an efficient and equitable health care system with a strong private sector component.) Even when you expect it, seeing Britain's NHS cult in action is always jarring.
And the second striking thing is that it's no wonder Britons are fed up with politics. Outside of UKIP Leader Nigel Farage's rhetorical flourishes, and, to this outsider, the funny regional accents, everything was a bore. The two main candidates, certainly, were the very definition of blandness. Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, who last time around delivered his party a crucial last-minute bounce in the polls with a stellar, vivid performance, was as tired as a man who just spent five years in a job he hates. Every cliché of atrocious political debate was there. "I did [horrible thing X]? Well, who are you to talk, you did [horrible thing Y]!" "My plan delivers more spending on everything you like, and also cuts taxes and balances the budget, while my opponent's plan will sneak into your house at night and eat your cat."
Britain is a splendid country with countless assets, but it could be much more prosperous and healthy than it currently is. Blame its politicians, and perhaps the people who vote for them.
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