UK politics is increasingly following the model of American politics. The increased polarisation of political views, division in the country’s political leanings and the return of the two-party system all point to this. This trend is unhealthy and we should be worried.
The first significant stepping stone to the increased Americanisation of UK politics in came in the 2010 General Election campaign. With each party having something to gain from the exercise, three TV debates were agreed to between the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Cue endless media comparisons with the significant presidential debates of US history, including Kennedy-Nixon.
Although it is true that broadcasters’ and public’s demand for party leaders battling it out in gruelling TV debates has grown exponentially in Europe in recent years, the model being followed in the UK in 2010 was certainly the US one. Furthermore, a knock-on effect of the advent of leadership debates has led to a decreased focus on party policy detail and an increased one on leader personalities. This can be best evidenced by the generally agreed key reason for Labour’s 2015 General Election defeat being public doubts over the suitability of Ed Miliband for office.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and menagerie of parties represented in the major TV debate in 2015 suggested a wholesale reversal of the American trend; leaning towards a more mainstream, European style of politics. The majority of European political systems are based on multiple political parties vying for contention to form coalition-based governments, and with the 2015 election seemingly headed for another hung parliament, there was much talk about with possible alliances and coalitions.
However, as it turned out the Conservatives narrowly won a majority. Worryingly, since then, the Americanisation process has accelerated rather than fizzled out.
Brexit – as well as representing public apathy with the EU – reflected this particularly. The excessively negative slant to campaigning which both sides took (cliff edge if we leave, prisoner of the EU if we stay) was straight out of the playbook of the negative campaign ads which saturate US TV channels during presidential elections. The difference in voting intentions between young and old is reminiscent of the equally sharp split between North and South in the US, where former Confederate states tend to be Republican strongholds. The narrow margin for Leave of 52-48% would certainly not look out of place as a popular vote split between nominated Democrat and Republican candidates for the White House these days.
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise particularly encapsulates the increasing imitation of US politics in the UK. A populist outsider whose supporters dramatically propel him to primacy within the party, who then performs way above expectations at a nationwide vote, at least in part by attracting previously apathetic voters with wildly optimistic or unrealistic policy pledges. Sounds familiar? Although Corbyn espouses a radical left agenda, and could never be accused of having run an electoral campaign based on fear and hatred in any way, there’s more in common between Trump and Corbyn than at first glance.
Although it helped that in both cases Trump and Corbyn faced robotic main opponents with vapid slogans (replace ‘Strong and Stable’ for ‘Stronger Together’), their rise further reflected the increasing showbiz nature of politics.
Corbyn, more than any other UK leader in modern times and perhaps ever, has employed the same tactic that Trump and all US presidential candidates have for some time; gaining feel-good momentum for their election campaigns by organising large rallies. This is not a coincidence. Corbyn’s team have recognised one of the greatest attractions to a voter considering voting a certain way: the bandwagon effect.
Making someone feel part of a movement is an incredibly alluring draw to any voter and large crowds for political events attract greater media coverage.
Ultimately, although UK politics has become increasingly Americanized, showing the same traits for a polarised electorate (split mainly between two parties), there are limitations on how alike to American politics the UK can get. In the UK, there simply never has been a pro-gun rights lobby like in the United States. On the flip side, while the 50 US states are protective of their individual identity and operate largely by federalised government, there is no independence movement like that of Scotland in the UK.
The Americanisation of UK politics is not a wholly negative phenomenon. The growing power and importance of parliamentary select committees in the UK imitates that on Capitol Hill, enabling people in power to be held to greater accountability (at least in theory). And although not perfect, TV debates have also helped increase voter engagement.
However, the polarisation of political views which has afflicted US politics for some time now has spawned here and is not welcome. Neither are the increasingly negative campaign styles, nor is the greater focus on the personality of leaders rather than actual policy welcome either.
Distrust of politicians, disillusionment with democracy and possibly even longing for a strong-armed leader to solve all problems in an instant, will only grow if these trends continue.