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There’s one born-again every minute

October 21, 2008

You have to pass a driving test before you are allowed to drive a car; but you don’t have to know the first thing about politics to have a say in who gets to run the country (any country where governments are elected). Which leads to the kind of situation such as that in the US, where candidates get elected because they have been born again (there’s one born-again every minute), or because the candidate in question comes up with the best one-liners (supplied, of course, by a team of highly-paid script-writers, copywriters, PR experts, psychologists and astrologers) in a TV debate.

There are major differences between the US and Britain when it comes to electing leaders. In the US, candidates garner support by drawing the public’s attention to how intelligent, experienced, cool, qualified, and great in general they are. In Britain, candidates get support by expressing humility, modesty, and self-effacement. For a British politician to say: “When I am elected Prime Minister…” would be political suicide. It would be seen as arrogant and presumptuous. In the US, by contrast, any politician running for office who used the phrase: “If I am elected…” would be seen as weak, dithering and lacking in self-confidence.

No British politician would dream of citing Joe the plumber as an example of the country’s economic woes. In Britain plumbers earn more than Members of Parliament and live in luxurious villas with high walls and armed security guards at the gate. And while economic recessions come and go, people will always call a plumber when their sink gets blocked or their toilet overflows.

In the US, aspirants to high political office do not hesitate to wheel out their wives, children, and family pets for “media opportunities”. In Britain, the families of politicians are regarded as a liability and an embarrassment, and are kept locked away in secret dungeons until after the elections have taken place. (Tony Blair was a notable exception to this rule; which just goes to prove how sensible a rule it is.)

In the US, leadership contests are settled by having a shoot-out at the OK corral. In Britain, the dilemma for would-be replacements is to make it abundantly clear to all and sundry that they want the top job and are prepared to kill to get it, whilst being careful not to express anything other than sincere and wholehearted support for the person whose job they are after.

To get back to the American electorate (and, to be fair, the British electorate isn’t all that far behind in the sucker vote stakes), perhaps a solution would be to require all would-be voters to pass a basic intelligence and current affairs test. It wouldn’t have to be difficult. Polls have revealed that large swathes of the American public believe that Europe is a country, the London Underground is a branch of Al Qaeda, George W. Bush is doing a great job, Saddam Hussein personally organized the 9-11 attacks, America won the war in Vietnam, and almost every important invention – from the telephone to the internet – was invented by an American.

(Where on earth are they getting their information? Ah, yes: Fox news.)

A few simple questions would quickly eliminate electoral applicants whose IQ didn’t quite make it into double digits; and that in itself would represent a major advance. Question 1 could be something along the lines of: “What planet are you on?”

America is a big place. Can it really be so hard to find a candidate who is intelligent, sane, well-educated, non-racist, non-xenophobic, non-born-again, and filthy rich? Well, okay; that last criterion might eliminate a few people. But still, suitable candidates for the US presidency are as rare as Higgs bosons in a particle accelerator.

But at least Americans are getting to elect their leader, which is more than can be said for the people of Britain, who have been lumbered, through no fault of their own, with arguably the most ineffectual Prime Minister in British history – foisted on them by Tony Blair as revenge for their rejection of him.

I don’t think anyone doubts Gordon Brown’s sincerity. He obviously has great faith in his own sense of destiny, and sees himself as a great British statesman. Unfortunately, his inflated opinion of himself is not shared by the vast majority of the British people, who didn’t elect him, don’t like him, and don’t want him as their Prime Minister. Any normal, non-megalomaniac person would take the hint and withdraw gracefully from the fray; but Brown is determined to persevere in the face of overwhelming unpopularity, presumably in the belief that people will eventually come around to him. That will happen when pigs fly and Republican politicians learn how to pronounce the word nuclear.

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