LONDON, United Kingdom — Queen Elizabeth II helicoptered into London this morning from her suburban palace in Windsor and met with her Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, for about 20 minutes. Brown asked her to dissolve Parliament and set the date of May 6 for a general election. She said yes and choppered back out to the 'burbs.
The Queen may have a more complicated role to play after May 6 if opinion polls are to be believed.
Three months ago the assumption was the Conservatives would win easily. But, according to the latest polls, it is now possible that none of Britain's main political parties will win a majority, there will be a hung parliament and the Queen, with advice from senior civil servants, will have to choose one of the party leaders to form a minority government.
How this came to be has less to do with the arrogance and ineptitude of the Conservative Party's election managers — although they are both — than with the state of British society.
Britain is a representative democracy and so it is natural that polling on voting intentions should represent the public mood, which at the moment is confused and uncertain. People don't know which way to go.
What people are most confused about is the economy. Britain has only just come out of recession. Massive intervention by the Labour government was needed to get the economy growing but it has left the country with national debt equal to 60 percent of GDP. Is it time to get to work cutting the deficit and taxes by cutting public services, as the Conservatives have promised to do, or to continue to protect public services and perhaps continue to prime the pump to prevent a double-dip recession, as Labour wants to do?
What do you think? There are no easy answers. The reason there are no easy answers is not just because of the complexity of economic problems but because Britain has come to the end of a political era. Conservative leader David Cameron was indulging in election hyperbole when he told his first rally of the campaign, "This is the most important general election for a generation," but he was stating a simple truth. This is the first real election to take place in a generation that isn't shaped by the doctrines of Margaret Thatcher.
The former prime minister was one of the most radical leaders Britain has ever had. In her 11 years in power she tore up the existing social contract and force fed an orthodoxy of free markets and "starving the beast" by cutting back public services, trying to wean the British public from its free-at-the-point-of-provision health service and other benefits. On the latter she failed, but when Labour finally returned to power in 1997 under Tony Blair it was only by accepting the Thatcherite (and Reaganite) orthodoxy that says free markets know best.
At the time, Peter Mandelson, fixer supreme to both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is alleged to have told businessmen that Labour "was intensely relaxed about people being stinking rich." Blair and Brown allowed Britain's financial services industry to grow with virtually no-touch regulation — Mrs. T. would have been proud.
And then came the crash.
The orthodoxy of unrestrained free markets has been comprehensively smashed and if voters are flying blind into this election, so are the politicians.
This election campaign starts with double the number of undecided voters than the last one five years ago. However they are not undecided about the relative merits of the two party leaders, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
The voters really don't like Brown at all. But they just don't know if Cameron, lovely chap that he is, will find the balance between reducing debt and maintaining public services, or intervening with banks bailed out by the government by regulating them, stopping the bonus culture and forcing financial institutions to start lending money to small businesses again.
With Brown, like him or not, they know what they will get. Having helped create the lax regulation that led to the crisis, Brown spent the last 18 months fighting to drag the economy back into growth while keeping British banking alive.
Anyway, the outcome of the election is unknowable. This will be the sixth one I've covered and I have no idea what will happen. I'm still inclined to think the Conservatives will win — if only because after 13 years in office a mature society would simply want a change.
Politicians must tell white lies and the fully ripened on the vine variety all the time. Thirteen years of these untruths must make people want a fresh start. But fear that the economy is not healed yet may make voters put that consideration to one side.
The big moment in this campaign will be the first ever televised debate among the leaders of the three main parties here (in addition to Labour and the Conservatives, that includes the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg). There will be three of these encounters in all. Sixty-three percent of voters say they intend to watch the first one. We'll know more about how this thing is going to go after that.