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Opinion: Lessons of the UK election (so far)

Britain's politicians, constitutional "experts" and press all need to get out more.

A selection of British newspapers with headlines relating to the general election is displayed in London, May 07, 2010. Britain's opposition Conservatives look on course to be the largest party in parliament after the closest election in three decades, but without a clear majority, leaving it uncertain who will eventually run the country. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

Update: Gordon Brown is no longer British Prime Minister. Per custom he went to Buckingham Palace at around 7:25 p.m. local time to tender his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II. Approximately an hour later, she summoned David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, and asked him to form a government. Cameron is expected to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party. Details will become clear overnight. Brown has also resigned as leader of the Labour Party marking his departure from front line politics.

LONDON —  The climax to Britain's electoral drama is imminent (maybe by the end of today) and before the riptide pulls the story in a new direction here are some important lessons from last week's inconclusive events.

1. When it comes to politics, Britain remains a tribal society. Virtually nothing can make people change their tribal allegiance. Coming out of the worst economic crisis in in 70 years and facing a Labour Party exhausted by 13 years in office led by a thoroughly disliked Prime Minister in Gordon Brown, the Conservatives led by the telegenic and personally well-liked David Cameron were only able to enlarge their share of the vote by 3 percent.

More telling is the Liberal Democrat "surge" that never materialized at the ballot box. Based on their leader Nick Clegg's compelling performances in the party leader debates there was an expectation they would create a whole new coalition. Two weeks before the election the Lib Dems were polling ahead of Labour. But in the privacy of the polling booth Labour's tribal vote held. The party came a comfortable second.

2. Britain's political system is outmoded but there is no constitutional procedure for updating it because there is no "Constitution." In America we have constitutional lawyers — President Obama is one — in Britain they have constitutional "experts." These men — all men — are by and large part of the Oxbridge establishment, mostly their expertise boils down to "what I say is constitutional is constitutional." There is very little recourse, if you disagree with their pronouncements. Frankly, this is not healthy for a modern democracy.

If there was a written constitution it would have clearly defined procedures for amendment. Instead, Nick Clegg is running from Conservatives to Labour to see who will give him the best deal for reforming the electoral system so that when his party gets close to a quarter of the vote — as it just did — it somehow ends up with more than 8 percent of the seats — which it just did.

3. The main "constitutional" problem in the United Kingdom, however, is not the electoral system, it is the fact that the executive function of government has outgrown the legislature, where it is housed. This is not a recent problem. More than 30 years ago a Conservative politician, Lord Hailsham, described British democracy as "elective dictatorship." Hailsham was pointing out that the majority party in Parliament's House of Commons forms the government, its leader becomes Prime Minister, and his legislative proposals more or less get rubber stamped by his majority. Hailsham wrote before Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair or the 24-hour news cycle morphed the post of Prime Minister into something presidential.

The time has come for Britain's establishment to accept that fact. Introducing a direct vote for Prime Minister, removing him from the House of Commons and asking him or her to perform a purely executive function — then having a proportionally elected Parliament would make Britain's democracy "representative" of the electorate.

Don't worry, it won't happen.

4. The biggest losers in this election have not been from any political party. It is the news media. From the arrival of Nick Clegg on the scene through the dramatic shifts and turns of the 96 plus hours since the vote was counted they have been overwhelmingly wrong, wrong and wrong again in their reporting and analysis. My favorite was the Guardian columnist who filed a blog item on election night as soon as the exit polls claimed the Lib Dem vote had not materialized.