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British election: political animal Brown vs. technocrats Clegg, Cameron

To his credit, Gordon Brown cut his teeth through left-wing activism. Nick Clegg and David Cameron were groomed as professional political managers, insulated from the people.

By Brendan O'Neill / April 30, 2010


Britain is gearing up for what promises to be a super-important, transformative, and possibly even historic general election on May 6.

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I know – it doesn’t look like that on the surface. There are no inspiring political leaders in the campaign, only the increasingly ashen-faced Gordon Brown, prime minister and leader of the Labour Party, squabbling with the fresh-faced but ideas-lite leaders of the Conservative Party (David Cameron) and the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg).

Also, as evidenced in last night’s televised debate, there hasn’t been any real, substantial debate on important issues such as the sluggish economy, liberty, and the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has only been technical, bank manager-style disagreements over whether public services should be cut by X amount or Y amount, and whether “Our Boys” should come back from Afghanistan in six months or two years. So far, it all smells and sounds more like office politics than real politics.

However, something else is taking place, too, something unspoken and unchallenged: the leap towards a new style of political leadership. It signals a new kind of Britain that will be governed, not by politicians made and shaped through democratic engagement with the public, but by professional politicians who learned their skills and developed their beliefs in private firms and aloof think-tanks, far from the madding crowds.

An important generational shift is occurring, which could mean that in postelection Britain there will be an even bigger Grand Canyon-style chasm between the rulers and the ruled.

In many ways, Mr. Brown, who took over as Labour Prime Minister from Tony Blair in 2007, is the last old-style politician of the campaign. He cut his political teeth through left-wing activism, community work, and a very long stint as a member of Parliament.

Whatever you think of Brown’s political beliefs (I, personally, am not a fan), there’s no denying that he is a political animal. The oldest of the three main leaders fighting for our votes in the current election campaign (he is 59, Cameron and Clegg are both 43), he started out as a left-leaning student politician, served as an M.P. from 1983 to today, and was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 to 2007 before wrestling the P.M.’s crown from Blair’s jealous, clasping hands.

By contrast, the new generation of aspiring political leaders are professional managers rather than political animals. Their formative years were spent, not traipsing through the streets to talk to the masses, but in air-conditioned offices doing deals and working out “political angles.”