Going Grumpy: Why The New York Times Is Wrong About the British Election, and Maybe U.S. Politics As Well.


A headline in The New York Times

“The suicide of Britain,” proclaims an apocalyptic and, (as the Brits would say) bloody silly headline on Ross Douthat’s op-ed column.
Arriving back in New York after a very pleasant and refreshing visit to England, I’m surprised by the response to last week’s U.K. election in my gloomy, grumpy edition of The New York Times.
C’mon guys. Lighten up a little.  It could have been a lot worse.

Conservative leader David Cameron’s surprising win gives Britain a better chance of stability than the outright muddle that was suggested by pre-election opinion polls.  Thank goodness the pundits and data experts were  wrong.  The nation could have faced weeks of confusing bargaining over how to stitch together a shaky coalition.

Reading The Times over the past few days, you get the impression that the crushing defeat of the socialist Labor party leader Ed Miliband means that Britain is going to the dogs.
In his panicky “suicide of Britain” column, Douthat is wrong to suggest that “the United Kingdom as we know it is on the ropes.”  A little over-the-top, Ross!
The “little Englander” UKIP actually won fewer votes than many had expected.  This anti-modernist protest movement will be represented by a solitary M.P.  Douthat’s foreboding claim that “the deep winners were the forces of nationalism,” is an exaggeration.
Yes, the Scottish Nationalists did score a stunning victory, winning 56 of the 59 seats they contested.  But thanks to Cameron’s success in England (where the great majority of British people live), the SNP simply doesn’t have the votes in the 635 member Parliament to demand another at-bat for independence.  
Last year, the cause of Scottish separatism suffered a clear defeat. Cameron has ruled out another referendum in the next five years.
Last week’s SNP election sweep was more about states’ rights than an overwhelming demand to break from the U.K.  The system of government is highly centralized, and ruled from London.  Scots, quite understandably, want more power over their own taxes and spending.  The demand for federalism will not inevitably lead to a weaker United Kingdom.
The line outside a polling station in Berkshire. U.K. turnout was the highest in 18 years.

As for the European Union, Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on U.K. membership could actually strengthen rather than weaken the European cause.
Both The Times’ editorial writers and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel warned that the election result is “bad news for Europe.”
Maybe not.  Antipathy to rules and regs from Brussels is nothing new.  For decades, right-wing British conservatives have been deeply skeptical about being part of Europe.  In the 90’s they caused misery for the Tory government of John Major.  
Holding a referendum at a time when when well over 50% of Brits say they support staying in the E.U. could settle the matter for many years to come.
Britain is not alone in calling for a more decentralized Europe.  “We have potential supporters, even among countries that have been reluctant to be associated with the curmudgeonly British,” says the Mayor of London, and Conservative M.P., Boris Johnson. 
“I have every confidence that our negotiators… will be able to achieve a reform that is in the interests not just of Britain but of the whole of Europe.”
Johnson may turn out to be wrong, and “Brexit” (Britain saying no to the E.U.),  might be in the cards.  But both his argument, and the positive case for what happened last week in the election, is getting short shrift in The Times.
The result of this election is more evidence that the left in both the U.S. and the U.K. has misunderstood the message sent by voters.  Conservatives in both countries simply seem more cheerful than their opponents, regardless of the strength or weakness of their cause. 
By all means, The Times and others should champion the cause of minorities, low paid workers and the unemployed, who don’t get a fair shake from our system.  But don’t ignore the contributions of entrepreneurs and wealth creators, and the aspirations of middle class taxpayers to better themselves.
Many of us want to read about hope and progress, instead of merely being subjected to a steady diet of whining and foreboding.
Note: After writing this I noticed this from David Brooks (himself of The New York Times).  Good stuff here

Women Are Winners in Britain’s Surprising Election.  So is the UK Economy.

Laura Kuenssberg, one of the new generation of savvy, smart women commentators on British TV

London – 

There’s nothing quite as brutal as politics.  No fewer than three party leaders resigned here within hours of the UK’s surprising election.

Scores of highly experienced Liberal Democrats and Labor politicians were stunned by their defeats as they saw their high flying careers crash to the ground in a sudden and very public way.

The sensibly centrist Lib Dems, who received absolutely no credit from British voters for their crucial role in propping up the coalition over the past five years, were unfairly punished by voters. 

But this was also a refreshing election in several ways.  The number of ethnic minorities in the House of Commons rose more than 50%.   The results also mean progress for women, who won one-third of the seats in the British House of Commons.  Authoritative female commentators and political thinkers today play a far more prominent role than in years past.    

Emily Maitlis analyzed gains and losses on BBC 1.

The vote was also a defeat for the politics of envy and class resentment.  David Cameron – now the Conservatives’ Tony Blair – reached out to young, middle class voters with a positive tone and an optimistic message about the future. 

The lessons of his success should be taken to heart by White House contenders in the 2016 U.S. campaign. The charming and easy-on-his-feet Cameron talked a lot more about wealth creation than income distribution.  But at the same time his one-nation message addressed voters’ insecurities, with promises to boost spending on Britian’s popular government-run health service.

While he did speak of more deficit reduction, the Tory leader is no libertarian.  He knows that people like their government benefits.  Unlike American Republicans and right-wing British Conservatives, Cameron put aside calls for smaller government in the future.

Labor (or, as my English friends say, Labour) seemed to be caught in the past, nostalgic for a time when large trade unions were more powerful than they are today.  While Cameron aimed for the center, Labor’s awkward leader Ed Miliband moved his party to the left, with calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and more business regulations.  Labour politicians talked about “protecting the working class,” when more Brits now see themselves as part of the middle class. 
David Cameron’s victory was more decisive than polls had predicted. 

The Conservatives’ majority means they will be able to form a most likely stable government lasting the full five years until 2020,” says IHS UK economist Howard Archer. This “should be supportive to economic activity.”  Financial markets loathe uncertainty, and they reacted positively to the clear Conservative win.

You may have noticed from my earlier blogs that pre-election polls were unanimous in predicting a much closer result.  They were flat out wrong.  In this age of big data and ever more powerful numbers crunchers, that too is encouraging.

I don’t want the polls to be right all the time.  The complexities of human behavior are often hard to fully explain or predict. And that’s one more reason why democracy and the marketplace of ideas are so interesting.