By tradition, which is perhaps the most important pillar of the unwritten British constitution, the question of who will be the next British prime minister should have been decided before the question of who will be the next Premier League champion. In reality, the only thing we knew on Sunday was that the winner is … Chelsea.
To a newcomer this parliamentary election was even more fascinating to watch than the heroics of Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney. To us Europeans, Great Britain, more than any other country, is the cradle of democracy, and any observer could see that its democracy is indeed a thing both ancient and sophisticated. The three televised debates, a radical new addition to the campaign — and one that may have changed the two-party dynamic forever — showed how admirably civil, matter-of-fact, and (for most part) respectful of each other the three leaders were, something not to be taken for granted in other democratic countries. The only time one of them strayed to talk about “a bunch of nutters” he was referring to foreigners, albeit Europeans, too.
The polling was dead on the mark. How anyone can do it, what with 650 single mandate districts of different electorate sizes, some of them five times bigger than others (the explanation for this would require volumes), attests to long experience with the process. Still, it is mind-boggling that some of the pre-election polls projected about 305 seats for the Conservatives, and the earliest post-election estimates gave them 307 seats. In the end they got 306 but may yet win one more in a by-election in a district where one of the candidates died during the campaign. Very civil.
If the closely contested campaign brought about a strong element of suspense, what happened since the election was a downright thriller. The Parliament was hung — albeit not literally — and the precedents were scarce. The Queen, on the one hand, has the exclusive authority to appoint the new prime minister, and, on the other, absolutely no discretion in the matter. Her sole constitutional adviser, the previous prime minister, was arguably not a disinterested party. In a pragmatic arrangement, it was for senior civil servants, the Sir Humphreys of lore, to call the shots. Until late afternoon Tuesday, things were murky.
Then all hell broke loose. At twenty minutes past 7 p.m. Gordon Brown announced he would resign. Ten minutes later he was in Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation to the sovereign. Twenty minutes after his midnight blue Jaguar left the palace, Cameron’s silver Jaguar entered the grounds. Ten minutes later Cameron was the prime minister.
One cannot but admire how the British political genius, in spite of what looks like an arcane procedure, assures that there is at any given time one, and only one, legitimate government, and, next to it, an honest broker to guarantee a smooth transition. In many other systems the prime minister would have been forced to resign immediately after the election without an assurance of a new legitimate authority in his place. What would entail elsewhere would be a protracted period of political uncertainty, challenges in courts, endless negotiations, and an entire country — not just its parliament — hanging in the balance. In Britain, people are shocked to wake up the day after an election without a new government in place. Due to extraordinary circumstances that have occurred only thrice in the last hundred years, they may had to wait until Tuesday night. In view of the rather ominous instability of the markets in the aftermath of the Greek crisis, it may be just as well. The coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats may look rather novel for Britain, but it is the daily bread of continental European politics. One of its consequences is likely to be a gradual shift from the first-past-the-post electoral system to something more resembling proportional representation.
In terms of political landscape and architecture, all this clearly moves Britain closer to Europe and farther away from the United States. Whether this is a good thing or not, is for the British people to decide.