LONDON — Britain is now in the grip of a general election campaign with voting due May 5. As with political campaigns generally in the modern world, this one is heavily oriented toward domestic issues and disputes. Globalization and the worldwide information revolution seem to have had the opposite effect to that predicted by many experts.
Far from electorates becoming more cosmopolitan and looking to wider horizons, they appear to have narrowed their focus to more inward-looking and local issues, or so the opinion-polling authorities have concluded. The political party strategists have duly responded.
In the British case, this is being vividly demonstrated in the current battle for votes. Matters such as Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, or whether the Iraq invasion was right, or even legal, have vanished from the airwaves as the rival parties’ protagonists clash over tax rates, public-spending promises, street crime, school standards, transport facilities, immigration and health provision.
This seems strange. After all, the “Europe” issue raises the most profound questions about Britain’s status in the world, about its security and even about such fundamental matters as national identity. And the Iraq invasion issue has proved to be deeply divisive, as in most other European countries and in Japan, with millions taking to the streets in protest and the bitterest of feelings as to whether the country was led into war on false intelligence or false presentation of that intelligence.
Enormous and admirable bodies of opinion also exist, right across the political spectrum, focused on world development and humanitarian concerns.
How can it be that these highly contentious problems, which clearly matter to people, are not reckoned to sway votes or favor one political party or another?
Part of the answer is that such issues do not fit neatly into the party political template. Worries about the European Union, and where it is headed, stretch across both the major parties. And unease about the Iraq project, and about what comes next out of the Middle East caldron, exists on both right and left.
A second reason, at least in the British case, and at least as far as the European issue is concerned, is that a clear opportunity lies ahead, beyond the general election and whoever wins, for the British to express their feelings on Europe. This is the promised referendum on whether to adopt the proposed new constitution for Europe, an occasion (probably next year) on which the majority of the British are likely to give a resounding “no” — if other countries such as France or the Netherlands have not already done so by then.
A third factor may be that some of the really big world issues of the future sound remote and impossibly complex. Thus the looming world energy crisis, the climate change issue or the whole complex of questions about global terrorism and its causes and cures just do not lend themselves to instant debate in the day-to-day electoral struggle.
But there is a fourth reason for the apparent disinterest in international issues which may be the most important of all. It is that the opinion pollsters may not be asking people the right question.
The standard opinion poll format is to ask voters to state their concerns in descending order. Down the list they are offered an item marked “foreign affairs.” Except in times of acute international crisis this usually gets a low marking, well below the “bread-and-butter” issues affecting everyday family life, such as education, health, transport and social security.
Yet a moment’s discussion with almost any group, whether of friends or strangers, confirms that worries about the world are very deep and come into almost every conversation.
The real problem is that people just do not think in this compartmentalized fashion. “Foreign affairs” may sound like an abstruse and remote subject, but re-phrase the subject as one of identity, of belonging, of “being British” and a very different answer emerges. Often those who have come to Britain most recently, or are second-generation immigrants, are the most passionate and proud in being and feeling British.
This is not at all the same as being nationalistic, let alone xenophobic. A mature nation like Britain knows in its bones that such feelings are negative and unrealistic in an interdependent world. It knows that racism is evil and that within an overall envelope of Britishness there must be tolerance, indeed welcome, for a variety of cultures.
But there is a key and binding word to describe these feelings and that word is “patriotism.” Love of one’s country, pride in its history, concern when its rulers fall short in their world responsibilities or show weaker resolve than others, desire to have some real say in “our government” and “our laws” — these are truly moving and powerful sentiments running through the electorate amid the swirls of globalization ands the jumble of world events.
Politicians and parties need urgently to find the words to lead on these matters, to speak in balanced and moderate tones that meet the patriotic sentiment in a sensible and modern way.
Pollsters who advise them to neglect this area are dangerously wrong, and the leaders who ignore the pollsters will demonstrate that they are not ignoring the people.
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