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A year before the next election, parties are flirting with American-style campaigns.
LONDON, UK — With one year to go before the general election, there’s a decidedly American scent in the air around Whitehall, the central palace that houses many government offices.
The Labour Party has hired David Axelrod, the campaign consultant behind President Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Not to be outdone, the Conservatives have taken on board Jim Messina, Obama’s former deputy chief of staff and 2012 campaign manager.
Even the idea of a yearlong campaign trail is something of a Yankee import. No general election in British history has had its date fixed so far in advance, this time thanks to an agreement struck when the coalition government was formed in 2010.
But whether the public will buy politicians’ flirting with American-style campaigning remains to be seen.
James D. Boys, a senior research fellow at King’s College London, believes a globalized media is partly responsible for the new direction.
“You’ve got a generation of British politicians who have come to office in the last few years who loved ‘The West Wing,’” he says, adding that they also see American strategists debating each other on CNN and think, “I want one of those. I want a war room of my own.”
Don’t expect confetti or crazy hats at the party conventions this fall, however. UK campaigns are a lot more low-key than America’s. Televised debates didn’t even take place until the last elections in 2010.
The key difference is that no one in Britain votes for a prime minister. Brits cast ballots only for their local members of parliament. The party with the majority of regional seats forms a government and its leader is typically named prime minister.
With less emphasis on the individual candidates and more on the party, the executive’s office is a lot less glamorous than its American counterpart. Pomp and circumstance in public life is really reserved for the Windsors, across town.
No British equivalent of “Hail to the Chief” starts playing as if by magic when a prime minister enters a room. The official residence at 10 Downing Street is an unassuming townhouse, not a giant white mansion.
Britain is the only G7 country without an executive air fleet a la Air Force One, which leads to all kinds of “Politicians — They’re Just Like Us!” moments. Like the day in September when Prime Minister David Cameron was caught leaving his official government briefcase unguarded on a public commuter train while he got a snack from the dining car.
It’s not hard to see why some prime ministers might long for the relative deference Americans shows their political class, says Boys, the author of a forthcoming book on US foreign policy during the Clinton years.
“Just imagine what it must be like to be a British prime minister. You spend your time in parliament being heckled and shouted at in prime minister’s questions,” he says of the often raucous weekly sessions during which the prime minister is obliged to respond to MPs. “Then you fly to Washington. You’re courted by the Americans. You get invited to the Oval Office. You’re seen as a visiting superstar.”
British leaders “like what they see over there,” Boys adds.
Axelrod and Messina — both of whom will work remotely from the US during the UK campaign — are hardly Britain’s first electoral imports.
“There’s a fruitful transatlantic trade in political expertise,” says Nick Anstead of the London School of Economics.
In addition to Messina, the Tories have also brought on Lynton Crosby, a political consultant described as the “Australian Karl Rove.”
Labour has been borrowing US campaign strategies since at least 1992, when party operatives flew to Little Rock, Arkansas to meet with Democratic advisors after Bill Clinton’s victory.
“When you hire someone like David Axelrod, you’re hiring an idea of how politics should be done,” Anstead says — in this case, the shoe-leather, grassroots campaigning the Chicago operative favors. “It will be interesting to see how that is imported.”
How much Americanization takes place in British politics will be influenced by the public’s expectations of politicians, which significantly differ from US attitudes.
The earnest, over-the-top patriotism Americans have come to expect of presidential candidates would trigger gag reflexes among many British voters. Unlike most of their US counterparts, MPs don’t sport pins of their national flag on their lapels.
And while American politicians seemingly can’t get elected without repeated references to their faith in a Christian God, most Brits don’t need — or want — their politicians to get personal about religion.
“People in the UK do not vote with their ballot papers in one hand and their Bibles in the other,” says Eliza Filby, a lecturer at King’s College London and author of the forthcoming book “God and Mrs. Thatcher.”
“We are not a nation that likes or requires a leader to speak openly about religion, or even be an active believer,” she adds.
Of the three main party leaders, the Liberal-Democrats’ Nick Clegg is an atheist, Labour’s Ed Miliband identifies as a “Jewish atheist” and Cameron once compared his ambivalent Christian faith to the spotty radio signal in the countryside.
Few voters care.
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Leaving aside Margaret Thatcher’s impromptu recitation of the Prayer of St. Francis on the day she took office, politicians and their advisors have shied away from overt references to their faith in recent history.
When then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked about his religion during a 2003 interview, his spokesman Alastair Campbell butted in to say, “We don’t do God.”
And when Blair proposed ending a speech with “God bless Britain” a few years later, a staff member shot him down with a curt, “I just remind you prime minister, this is not America,” Blair recalled in 2012.
So when Cameron remarked in a speech last month that Britain should not be afraid to identify itself as “a Christian country,” it took many people by surprise. It seemed so … un-British. So American.
Cynical observers noted that Cameron’s remarks expediently pushed the embarrassing resignation of a Tory minister out of the headlines, proving that co-opting God for political reasons works just as well on both sides of the Atlantic.
“There was clearly a hole in the ‘grid,’ the need for a new talking point,” Alastair Campbell wrote on his blog, “so someone said ‘I know, let’s get Dave to do God.’”