As some of the Skirt!istas probably know, May 6th was Election Day for the peoples of the British Isles. I’ve never been in a country where an election was happening in which I couldn’t participate, so this was very exciting for me. Especially since my life will be materially affected by the policies adopted by whatever new government comes into power in the next few days.
Why do I say the next few days? Well, unlike the USA, Britain has more than two viable political parties at the national level. This means that it’s difficult to get a simple majority. Currently, Britain has succeeded in…not electing anybody.
Well, sort of. What’s happened is called a hung parliament, where no one party has emerged with an obvious majority. This means that in order to form a new government (what we would refer to as an ‘administration’ rather than a government…in America ‘the government’ is always the same no matter who is in charge, and you can read that as cynically as you like), the various parties running in this election have to get together and form some sort of coalition. Labour and the Conservative party are the two big ones in the UK. (Confusingly for us transatlantic transplants, the color for Labour, which is the liberal wing, is red, while the color for the Conservatives is blue.) The third major player is the Liberal Democrats (yellow.) There are a bunch of smaller parties as well (Green, the Scottish National Party, the Pirate Party UK).
So basically what happens now, as far as I understand it, is that all the leaders of the various parties run around trying to charm the pants off one another in order to get more parliamentary seats on their side in order to form a coalition.
Now, the key point of the whole system is that before a new government moves into their offices, whoever is proposing to form this new government HAS TO GO ASK THE QUEEN. Or rather, the Queen has to ask the Prime Minister of the leading party, or in this case, coalition of parties, to form a new government on her behalf. (Confused? You’re not the only one!)
It still absolutely boggles my mind that a country so very proud of its democratic heritage still cowers under a system by which a monarch still has a say in government. My British friends always point out that the Queen doesn’t really have a say and it’s not like she could really affect anything. Well, I’m sorry, but she could if she wanted to. Ultimately the power to form a new government lies in her hands, no matter whether that is a mere traditional formality or not.
Every time I get in a conversation about this I end up trying to foment revolution and incite my British friends to rise up against the shackles of their oppressors. Thus far this has been ineffective, but I keep trying. (It’s a wonder I haven’t been deported.) I mean, the current monarch is fairly well-respected, on the whole. People don’t seem to mind her asking them to form governments on her behalf. But how could anybody take Charles seriously? It won’t be long before the government is formed in his name. Cringe!
On a more serious note, I have a feeling the whole election is going to be challenged anyway given the massive problems with polling stations around the country, which were overwhelmed by voter turnout. Hundreds of people, it is being said, were turned away without getting a chance to vote. In the States the kinds of numbers we’re talking about would have been swallowed up by the margin of error anyway, but here, these are significant proportions of those constituencies.
Ultimately the people I feel sorry for are the elderly gentlemen doing the political commentary on the BBC, particularly David Dimbleby. Given the hung Parliament, there might not be a clear outcome for days yet. I sort of hope they force them to stay on telly the whole time. “Day four of Elections 2010…we haven’t slept in 36 hours…we’ve run out of hair gel to keep our newsreader coiffs in place…we’re strongly suggesting that the parties resolve their differences in hand-to-hand combat…let the contest begin!”