BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND -- The new year kicked-off an election campaign for prime minister of the United Kingdom with a series of soap opera events that grabbed headlines, as did the frigid weather, which has buried the country under a blanket of snow.
The latest indication of trouble facing Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party as he tries to win a second term and extend Labour's 12-year hold on power, comes from a new ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph, which shows Brown trailing Conservative candidate David Cameron by 10 points, as well as a recent failed attempt by two of Brown's cabinet members to oust him as party leader. Lastly, in a personal indignity, he was voted by the British edition of GQ magazine as the "worst-dressed man of 2009." It may be the last "election" Brown wins.
While leading in the polls, the Conservatives do not have a lock on political or moral virtue. David Cameron, after running for months on a promise to grant tax breaks to married couples, seemed to reverse himself during an interview. After the press reported this as a flip, Cameron released a statement in which he tried to convince voters his marriage tax pledge remains firmer than some people's marriage vows. Cameron has also dodged questions on whether he will cut taxes. He has also embraced the National Health Service, which is one of Labour's chief political icons, causing some commentators to ask what difference there is between the two parties. Conservative Americans will recognize this as a question they sometimes ask when discussing Republicans and Democrats.
Marriage was also an issue for Peter Robinson, a Member of Parliament, the first minister in Northern Ireland's Legislative Assembly and the head of the conservative Democratic Unionist Party. Reminiscent of the film "The Graduate," Robinson's wife, Iris, 60, was expelled from the party on Saturday, according to the Telegraph, "and is expected to be asked to resign her positions in the Assembly and Westminster" after confessing to an affair with a 19-year-old boy/man for whom she arranged loans from property developers so that he could open a restaurant. The restaurant has lately been full of patrons, most of them journalists trying to dig up additional dirt. Where have you gone Simon and Garfunkel?
While clothes -- whether on or off -- provide entertaining distractions for the public who are trying to dig themselves out of snow in a country with few snow plows (the government is importing salt for the barely passable roads), the more serious issues remain.
The problem here -- as in the United States -- is that politicians begin with the wrong premise. They believe government is better able to take care of us than we can. Too many have embraced that view despite evidence and historical precedent to the contrary. Fewer can recall a day when people were expected to fend for themselves and turn only to government -- if at all -- as a last option. One British TV channel is promoting a forthcoming documentary on how women managed to provide for their families on rations during World War II. It's seen as history with nothing to teach us moderns.
The result is that politicians on the Left and Right argue not over the principle of self-reliance, but rather about the growth rate of current "entitlements." In drug rehab, the goal is to wean the patient from his addiction. With government programs, politicians seek only to adjust the dosage not end the dependency.
Polls in Britain have shown for months that the Conservatives should win a smashing victory in the coming elections. But like the Republican Party in America, which had its own smashing victories and then proved unworthy of them, British voters are faced with what increasingly seems like an echo, not a choice. The question is what difference will a Conservative victory make? The public is still waiting for an answer beyond dodgy sound bites and press releases that correct apparent reversals of previous positions.