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Walker's World: U.K. now and U.S. then

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Martin Walker
Washington (UPI) Apr 12, 2010
Because for the first time the party leaders will be facing off in televised debates next month's British general election has been compared to an American-style presidential election.

But the similarities don't stop there; in fact, the election that could end 13 years of Labor Party rule looks uncannily like the U.S. election of 1992.

That U.S. election also overturned a long period of a single party dominating the White House, after Ronald Reagan's two terms and then the 1988 victory of George H.W. Bush gave the Republicans 12 years of the presidency.

As in the United States in 1992, Britain's election comes at a time of economic recession and deep concern over spiraling budget deficits and a mounting public debt. By 1992, the U.S. budget deficit was running close to $300 billion a year. When Reagan won the presidency, the federal debt was just more than $1 trillion; when Bush left it 12 years later, it was at $4 trillion.

Debts of such scale, combined with an unprecedented U.S. trade deficit, shaped the whole election. One of the most pungent sound bites of the campaign came from the Democrat who beat Clinton to win the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

"The Cold War is over and Japan won," U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., used to say on the stump. For in those days, it was Japan's trade surpluses that spooked Washington and China's economic boom was just beginning.

And in Britain today, the budget deficit is more than 11 percent of gross domestic product so the economy and the question of spending cuts and new taxes is at the heart of the political campaign, just at was in 1992 America. Just as Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown used to promise never to increase British income taxes, so Bush may have lost his election by breaking his famous pledge, "Read my lips: no new taxes."

The parallels between the United States then and Britain now go even further. The decisive factor in the 1992 campaign was the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. He won almost 20 percent of the vote with his campaign to slash the deficit and save American jobs by scraping free trade agreements. His sound bite was to warn of "a giant sucking sound" of American jobs being lost to Mexico.

The key to British politics today is that the Labor and Conservative parties have lost their 80-year command of the electorate. There is now a credible and forceful third party, the Liberal Democrats, who look set to match Ross Perot's 20 percent of the vote. They could well end up in a coalition government, or as kingmakers, since opinion polls suggest that neither Brown nor his Conservative challenger David Cameron look sure of gaining a clear majority. Like Clinton, who never won 50 percent of the vote in 1992 nor in 1996, Britain looks certain to be governed by a party which cannot command the support of a majority of voters.

Like Clinton in 1992, Cameron is the younger man with the fresh face. And like Bush, Brown looks tired and out of ideas and is burdened with the responsibility for the sharp decline of the British economy on his watch.

The recession has cut Britain's GDP by 5 percent and Brown has squandered Labor's claim to be efficient stewards of the economy, just as Bush was blamed for losing the vigorous growth of Reagan's second term. And there was a banking scandal back in 1992 as well, the collapse of the savings and loan sector which cost more than $200 billion to fix.

And for the first time in British elections, the candidates' wives are becoming campaign figures in their own right, just as Hillary Clinton changed the dynamic of the 1992 election with her high profile and self-confident style that she was just as able as the men. Indeed, the Clintons even campaigned during the early primaries as "two for the price of one."

Perhaps the most striking feature of the two campaigns is that foreign policy takes a back seat. Despite the 1991 Gulf War and the rapid descent of Russia into chaos, the outside world did not figure greatly in the concerns of U.S. voters in 1992. And, despite the Afghan war and the unhappy memories of Iraq, the electors in Britain this year seem focused on domestic concerns.

This is odd, because the economic recession is an international experience, and also because as a member of the 27-nation European Union, British prosperity and Britain's future depend greatly on its neighbors across the Channel who account for more than 60 percent of Britain's trade. But while the EU is unpopular in Britain, it is not making much of an appearance in the campaign, even though the small U.K. Independence Party, which wants to leave the EU could take some key votes from the Conservatives.

Of course, the differences outweigh the similarities. A British prime minister with a majority in Parliament is very nearly an elected dictator, untrammeled by the separate power bases in congress and the individual states. And the U.S. president still carries some echo of the aura of Leader of the Free World, while Britain is a middle-ranking European country with only the fifth-ranking economy in the world.

But if there is one clear lesson for Britain from 1992, it is that when voters give up on an older, tired and incumbent leader who has led them into recession, they tend to give a chance to the other party and to the younger man.

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