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17 November, 2004

Blair isn't Britain: revisited

This is a follow-up to yesterday's entry, which alleged that the UK and USA aren't necessarily united in their approach to Iraq, it's merely Blair and Bush who agree; the UK population are being dragged along behind Blair, and it's unsafe to assume we really agree with him.
Jon made a useful comment on that posting, and my reply is of sufficient length to deserve a separate entry of its own.
Essentially, in explaining one aspect, I accidentally obscured another.

It's true that when voting for an MP, most people are aiming to elect a party of government, rather than necessarily the best local representative; my earlier posting was correct on the technical procedure, but I failed to mention voters' intentions.

However, I'd still argue that people voted in the Labour Party, which happens to be led by Tony Blair, not Tony Blair and his party, which happens to be Labour. The cult of personality isn't as strong in the UK as it certainly seems to be in the USA (sorry Jon, I'm ignorant of the Canadian situation). I'm not denying that a party leader can have a major effect on voters' choices, but my unproven impression is that it's only significant if a leader is overwhelmingly liked or disliked, which is atypical, historically. That said, Blair's style of leadership may cause a change of emphasis in future.

To return to my central point, the UK electorate don't necessarily choose a Prime Minister, especially if a party's leader changes between general elections. Most recently, John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and hence became PM. That means he was PM during the 1991 Iraq war, definitely without having been chosen as PM by public opinion.
The Prime Minister isn't even chosen by party members nationwide; there's nothing analogous to a US presidential primary. When the existing party leader is challenged or resigns, a new leader is chosen within a few days by a secret ballot of that party's MPs: an electorate of around 300. There's no requirement for the MPs to consult the public or wider party, though obviously they wish to be re-elected, so would be foolish to totally ignore public opinion.

The accountability of the election process is one issue, the dominance of the individual once there is another. Whatever the mechanism by which he was chosen, his colleagues couldn't have predicted his reaction to the events of 11 September, 2001. It is arguable, therefore, that he didn't have an intellectual and moral mandate to force his personal policies through Parliament in response to those events without genuinely consulting his party or the public. We might have agreed; my problem is that neither we nor our directly elected representatives were asked. To restate: the alliance is between Blair and Bush, not necessarily the UK and USA.

Comments

Hi Neil,

Thanks for the thoughtful response - you may be right that people tend to vote for a party rather than a leader, particularly if the have a family tradition of voting for a particular party or other ties. However, I think many people do vote for a leader, particularly since that tends to be where the media focus their attention.

You're quite right, of course, that a person can become prime minister by attaining party leadership in the middle of a parliament, when his or her party has the most seats. I don't know about Britain, but here, that PM is not considered to have a "mandate" (whatever that means) until he or she has faced the voters as leader. A number of our prime ministers (John Turner and Kim Campbell are the two most recent examples) are often not considered "real" PMs because they were chosen by their parties to enter into a majority situation, and then lost the next election several months later.

You are quite right, too, that once elected, particularly to a majority, a PM has too much power and too little accountability. In this, at least, the US system has the edge, as one or both houses of Congress could be (and sometimes are) controlled by the party not in the White House. One of the Yanks' famous "checks and balances."

As to your main point, I have the distinct impression that Mr. Blair's attitude towards the war in Iraq is not shared by most of Britain's citizens. Normally, this would suggest that he would be voted out of office in the next general election, assuming that the war is a big enough issue to motivate votes. However, are the Conservatives not also supportive of the war?

Posted by Jon. at November 18, 2004 01:28 AM
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