The advent of the railroad in 19th century England was not greeted with unalloyed joy; one dyspeptic lord protested against it on the grounds that it “would only encourage the laboring classes to travel about needlessly.”
Similar sentiments held sway in London, where attempts to build a central railway station were quashed by those who objected not only to the noise and smoke the trains would produce, but also to the sort of people they might attract. Instead, a ring of smaller railway stations, each serving a different region of the country, was constructed outside of what was then Central London; tourists – and some locals as well – have been befuddled and inconvenienced ever since by the necessity of first determining which station their journey required them to depart from or arrive at, and, when traveling from one part of the country to another by way of London, transferring between stations that might be situated many miles apart.
It was partly to address this problem that the Circle Line came into being, first as a railway, later as a part of the London Underground (that’s “subway” to American readers), and which passes through or near every major mainline rail station. It is – or was, until December 2009, the only Underground line to have no starting or end point, making it the perfect vehicle for someone who wants to go round and round on a very long ride without having to arrive at any place in particular.
Which sounds an awful lot like the present state of British politics, but more about that in a minute. Upon my most recent arrival back in London, I was disconcerted to discover that the Circle Line no longer goes in a circle. Well, not strictly speaking, anyway. It still makes the loop-de-loop around the capital, still serves all the mainline rail stations, but now it has a beginning and end, the result of a spur line having been added, so that now Circle Line trains leave the, erm, circle and trundle off to Hammersmith in West London, where they stop and rest for a while before going back to round the horn once more, only to terminate in hell, aka Edgware Road.
If I still lived in my old flat in London, this would not be an entirely bad thing; the new Circle Line spur would pass directly beneath my window, in theory (this is London Underground’s theory, anyway; I have my doubts) doubling or at least greatly increasing the frequency with which trains arrive at my station, which was previously served only by the less than reliable Hammersmith and City line. But more than that, it would have at least technically shifted my residence from outside to inside the Circle Line, which in some ways is the equivalent of living inside the Beltway in Washington DC terms or in Manhattan when looked at from a New York perspective.
Granted, it would still be just as far to the center of town, still entail an annoying change of trains (possibly two, thanks to the fiendish machinations that take place in and around the aforementioned Edgware Road), but nonetheless would have paid dividends in smugness, in that whenever media commentators referred disparagingly to self-obsessed inner Londoners, I could have proudly said, “That’s me and my neighbors they’re slagging off there!”
But alas, I’m no longer a Londoner, and unless Mayor Bloomberg’s Vision 2020 Comprehensive Waterfront Plan can be amended to include a rerouting of the East River, consigned for the foreseeable future to New York’s Outer Boroughs. Not to mention paying for my own health care and Metrocard (Londoners 60 and over get free public transport, though it will be interesting to see if that very generous benefit survives these economically and politically parlous times).
At any rate, I’ve been holed up in a cheapish London hotel (also, as it happens, a few steps outside the Circle Line) this past week and a half, from which I’ve had the opportunity to observe the most chaotic and ineffectual (at least so far) general election of recent times. The result? Well, there hasn’t been one so far, so in a sense we’ve been without a government for three days now. Technically, Gordon Brown is still prime minister, but only because they haven’t been able to confirm a replacement, and overall, the effect is something like the uneasy interregnum that followed America’s disputed presidential election in 2000.
Another similarity to the Bush-Gore set-to is the feeling, widespread on both sides, that people are in danger of being cheated out of the result they voted for, the main difference being that here there are three sides, possibly four if you count the hefty proportion of Brits who would like to see any and all politicians taken out and hung and were disappointed to learn that this was not at all what a “hung parliament” referred to.
The current troubles have actually been a long while in the making: because Britain has three rather than two major political parties, it’s been decades since any party, even when election results have been touted as a “landslide,” has had a legitimate claim to represent a majority of the people. Couple that with a bizarre (the less charitable might call it completely corrupt) system of legislative boundaries and you have a situation like the present one, where the Labour Party can receive only a 5% greater share of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, but win more than four times as many seats in Parliament (258 to 57).
Similarly, you have the Conservatives, who received only a bit more than a third of the national vote (36%), claiming, by virtue of their 305 Parliamentary seats, the right to take Britain on a course dramatically different from that espoused by the other two parties, who between them garnered 51% of the popular vote. Unfortunately for them, they haven’t managed to win the 326 seats which would enable them to do so.
So here we sit, bereft not only of a government, but at least for now, of ideas for how the impasse can be resolved. If the Conservatives can persuade the Liberal Democrats to join them in a coalition, then they’ll have all the votes they need; the sticking point is that the main demand of the Lib Dems is a change to the electoral system that would in future elections give them representation in Parliament proportional to the number of votes they received and forever change the face of British politics. Most notably, since Labour is a more natural ally for the Lib Dems, it would probably consign the Conservatives to permanent minority party status.
There’s also the outside chance that the Lib Dems could form an alliance with Labour to keep the Tories out, but because Labour did so badly in this election, that could only happen by including the fringe and regional parties, which would in turn give each of them veto power over anything the government tried to do. Above and beyond that, the biggest single sticking point preventing any such alliance is Gordon Brown, the widely unpopular – even in his own party – prime minister, who is presently holed up – “like a squatter,” says the right wing press, not without some justification – in Downing Street and simply refusing to relinquish what’s left of his power.
There is a possibility – a slim one, true – that the Liberals could, faced with the arrogance and obduracy of Conservatives who think they are the rightful heirs to government, make a deal with Labour, but it’s extremely unlikely that they will do so – or that the country will accept it – as long as Gordon Brown has not vacated the scene. Whether Labour can come up with a credible replacement on short notice – we’re talking days here, if not hours – is doubtful, especially since only a handful of Labour MPs have dared to question Brown’s continued tenure. Gordon Brown may be a mortally wounded beast, soon to be ignominiously turned out of office and maybe public life altogether, but for reasons probably known only to insiders remains capable of inspiring more fear than loathing in his underlings.
Result? Perhaps a new government by tonight or at least morning (“before the markets open” is the recurring mantra), but perhaps not. It remains to be seen whether the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg will hold fast to one of the party’s chief organizing principles, reform of the electoral system, or cave in to the Tories for the sake of temporary and largely symbolic power. Most of the media are betting on the latter, and given the financial crisis gripping Europe and threatening to go global, perhaps that’s the only real choice he has. Then again, if certain economists – Krugman comes to mind – are correct in claiming that the Conservatives’ budget-cutting plans will destabilize rather than strengthen Britain’s fragile recovery, what’s the hurry?