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This speech was given at Boston College, Massachusetts on 21 October 2004
The US Presidential Election:
A view from Parliament, a view from Europe

 

Richard Bacon MP

I should start by saying I feel rather cautious, having just arrived in the United States at lunchtime today, about giving you a Public Lecture on the US Presidential Election.

Not only is Massachusetts the home state of one of the candidates, but you have all been living through and following the Presidential Election for a considerable time and much more closely than those of us overseas, even if we are keen students of American politics, as many British parliamentarians certainly are (and I don't just mean the West Wing - although there are plenty of addicts of that too).

What's more, not only am I not an American, not only do I not have a vote in the Presidential Election, but the last time anyone from England tried to tell people in this part of the world what to think and what to do, it ended up with what I can only describe as a very unfortunate incident in Boston Harbor.

So I hope you will understand if I proceed with a degree of caution, with some preliminary observations about where things look different in the US Presidential Election, compared with our system.

I will move on to some reflections about where things look the same, or at least similar, and why it is that the whole US political system is so particularly intriguing from a British point of view.

And then, if I have survived that far, I will make some broader observations about what I think is plainly - at least in the eyes of those overseas - the biggest issue in the Presidential Election campaign, namely the question of Iraq.

When John Carfora invited me to address you and chose the title for my talk, including the words ‘the view from Parliament, the view from Europe’ I did say to him that this title seemed marvellously laced with ambiguity and subtlety and that in my remarks I would delve into its mysteries accordingly.

However, I must also say that as the date of this Address has become closer and closer the ambiguities and subtleties of the title have seemed steadily less clear in my mind and the gaps in my knowledge of European politics have seemed steadily wider.

I should explain that I come from that wing of British politics, actually highly visible on both the left and the right in Britain, which regards ‘Europe’, at least politically, as very firmly somewhere else. I am what is in the jargon known as a ‘eurosceptic’, that is, I believe we should make our own laws and set our own taxes rather than hand these decisions over to people overseas. This is now a rather quaint view in the eyes of many in the political class in Great Britain, although I take some comfort from the fact that my view is shared by most of the population.

Despite these caveats about Europe I suppose I just may find room for one or two remarks about the French, since it would be a shame to come all this way and miss the opportunity entirely.

Where the US and Britain look different

Let me then start with some preliminary observations about where things look different in the US election system, compared with the UK.

Money

The first and most stark difference is money. I read the other day that in the present election the candidates and the various associated campaigning organisations will spend over one billion dollars, and that may be an underestimate.

Any serious American political operative coming to Britain would be astonished by the small scale, the almost 'hick' amateurism compared with the US. That's not to say things haven't changed hugely in recent decades. Things have become much more professional and our political parties have for many years now regularly sent people over to observe how things are done here. But our operations are still on a very small scale compared with the US.

To give you some idea of the contrast, the total local spending added together for one of the major political parties running a candidate in each and every one of the 642 parliamentary constituencies in Great Britain would not exceed $10 million. And even if one added on the national spending, it is still quite possible, for example, that the spending in just one important Senate Race in the US could exceed the entire spending in a general election for a major political party in Britain.

Television

The prime reason for the difference over money, of course, is television. In most European countries, including Britain, it is simply not possible - it is unlawful - to buy television time for political advertising. Television time is allocated according to levels of support, numbers of candidates in a given election, and so on, and TV stations are simply obliged to make space in their schedules for the political parties to run their own broadcasts at set times of day.

I am not quite up to speed on the latest campaign finance reforms in the US but my impression is that every attempt to stem the flow of money into politics in one place simply leads on to the money turning up somewhere else. And this plainly has a whole series of effects in the United States on the body politic generally as well as on the policy process in particular, which seem, at least to an outsider, unlikely to be healthy ones.

On the other hand, I also have the impression that the ability of a political candidate in the United States to raise money is itself a sign of political virility and that no one is much interested in supporting a candidate politically who is unable to attract backing financially.

And also that your 30 second political television commercials, which sometimes look like the verbal equivalent of chopping someone up very fast with a meat cleaver, are almost a cherished part of the gladiatorial ritual of an American electoral contest, and for sure one that can be very entertaining. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that such commercials happen, I would imagine that the combination of television companies anxious to protect their revenues, and people with money or access to money wanting to spend it in order to get elected, would make this aspect of the system unlikely to change any time soon.

Another striking feature of the US system to our eyes is the big set piece televised debate between the candidates. After the last debate the correspondent of the Financial Times wrote that: “For anyone who has sneered at the US election campaign, the three presidential debates have amply demonstrated America's appetite for substance and the vigour of its democracy: The debates laid bare the choice for Americans, offering them the kind of extended opportunity to examine the candidates that voters in most countries, even most democracies, can only envy”.

And certainly this is something which I think people in Britain would like to see ourselves in our own elections. For although we have a parliamentary and prime ministerial system, it is one with increasingly  ‘presidential’ features and there's no doubt that the ability of the party leader to project and to look like the leader of the country is of considerable importance. However, although our main party leaders are of course regularly interviewed separately on TV, there is, alas, little sign at the moment that we shall have the set piece television debates between them of the kind which you have.

Professionalism

Money also means much greater professionalism, much greater quantitative analysis, and in the US there is whole separate industry which doesn't really exist in the UK - the political consultant. We are familiar with public affairs lobbying companies who act for commercial clients as issue advocates. But the idea of a political consultant to whom you can say 'Here is my cash, now get me elected' is largely unknown.

Technology

In the US there is also much greater investment in technology. Although our parties have been reasonably adept at using database technologies in the last ten or fifteen years, the US is more advanced - for example, things like doorstep campaigners for a political party showing voters quick video clips on a Palm Pilot, which I was reading about in Time magazine the other day, are at the moment really things we just hear about rather than use on any scale.

Or at least, I don't. But, on the other hand, speaking as one who has only just learnt how to send a text message on my cellphone and who still feels a certain sense of triumph when I successfully change a light bulb, maybe it's actually going on all around me but I just haven't figured it out yet. In any event, doubtless it will come in due course.

Intense debate

Another area which strikes me about the US election process is the nature of American political debate about the issues. Of course, we have debates about issues too. And many of the issues are similar, such as what to do about our health care system, and retirement savings and so on.

But I have a sense that, in the United States, almost each and every major issue has an important and well organised and well financed body of concerned citizens lobbying vigorously either for the issue or against it.

Whether it's School Prayer or Guns or Gays or Stem Cell Research or Abortion or Jobs or the Environment, the sheer level of activism and passion which one sees in American political campaigning is generally greater than we have.

For us, even where issues are very serious, campaigning tends to be less vehement - and it can occasionally take on a somewhat Monty Python quality, such as when a rather overweight Bat Man appeared recently without invitation on a window ledge of Buckingham Palace, to draw attention to the problems facing fathers who seek access to their children after a divorce.

Perhaps the only area where we seem to approach your level of passionate activism is over the hunting of foxes, which as one who doesn't hunt myself I cannot fully explain, except to say that to some of those who are against foxhunting, it is the only touchstone issue in how they vote, while for some of those in favour, and who are seriously engaged in it, foxhunting has a sacramental quality roughly equivalent to the voyage of the Mayflower Pilgrims, the Ride of Paul Revere and the Gettysburg Address all rolled into one.

To anyone wishing to try and understand this phenomenon I can only recommend you to read a beautifully written and exceptionally funny little book called On Hunting by Roger Scruton, who by the way was until quite recently a professor of philosophy at your rivals Boston University and who, to give you some idea of how seriously he took his sport, was so determined not to miss any hunting while teaching in Boston that he caught a plane back to England every weekend during the hunting season.

Foxhunting aside, what I see in America - far from Americans being apathetic - is political debate being conducted with a dynamism, an intensity is perhaps the best word, which is often at a different level from our own experience.

And insofar as there is a lack of interest or an apathy about issues, my impression is that in addition to the general ‘apathy factor’ and low voter turnout which frankly every major developed country faces among its electorate, in America there is also something else going on - an expression of a natural and very American distrust of all government, particularly in a place called Washington DC which is far away and which insists on demanding taxes - always plural - from a citizenry who would rather be left in peace to lead their own lives unhindered.

Where the US and Britain look similar

I turn from what is different to areas of similarity with our own experience and to the fascination with the United States, particularly for any British observer of American politics, as well as a little on the view as seen from Europe.

Over two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Every man has two nations: his own, and France”, which I suspect is not a sentiment that would find much echo in the United States today.

But when Jefferson first wrote those words it almost certainly was true, and it does much to explain French attitudes to America and indeed to the Anglo-Saxon world in general that it is no longer true. Instead, as the American journalist Mark Hertsgaard has put it: “Today the second nation of every person on earth is the United States”.

This is not a position which the French enjoy. Despite having for a long time led the world intellectually, artistically, economically, culturally and linguistically, over the last two hundred years or so the French have found themselves in many ways superseded, first by the British empire in the nineteenth century and then by the United States since the twentieth. In short, they have had to come to terms with the almost limitless spread of Anglo-Saxon culture throughout the world even though they are quite convinced it is inferior to their own.

By the way, it certainly doesn't help that, as a kind of final insult, on any international flight when a French pilot flying a French airliner wants to land at a French airport - such as Charles de Gaulle in Paris - and needs to contact the French air traffic controller, he is now supposed to speak in English, according to international air traffic rules.

The French now have a kind of prickliness and stubborn resentment about the Anglo-Saxon world that finds no equal elsewhere in the West. But I think it would be wrong to suppose that the French are not just as curious about the United States as the rest of the world.

I asked my researcher to analyse the level of media coverage of the US Presidential Election in different countries around the world. Was it the case, as I guessed it might be, that British coverage of the Presidential Election is substantially greater than in other countries? The answer came back that while British coverage was indeed extensive, there was equally thorough and detailed coverage of the US Election to be found not in Germany nor Italy nor Japan nor Australia - but in France.

And perhaps one shouldn't be surprised by this. After all, France is the oldest ally of the United States and was the first country to offer the United States diplomatic recognition in the face of a common enemy - namely us!

Furthermore, both the United States and the French Republic were founded on ideas about the rights of mankind. There were of course important differences. In France the ideas were grounded in electrifying declarations by French philosophes about the universal rights of mankind. In America, although the influence of the Enlightenment was plainly felt, and the founding fathers were well acquainted with Locke and Rousseau as well as the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, it is also true that they were very agitated by a rather precise list of grievances about existing rights that had been infringed.

To be sure, in America these rights were in some cases either circumscribed or non-existent if you didn't meet the property qualification or you happened to be female or a slave. This adds weight to the notion that, in the American case, the ideas were of their time and place more than that they were grounded in universal theory.

As Daniel Boorstin points out in his wonderful book, The Genius of American Politics, even Thomas Jefferson, although he was more influenced than many of the other Founding Fathers by the ideas of the Enlightenment, was influenced at least as much by what he understood to be infringements of the traditional rights of Englishmen; that during the very years when the American Revolution was brewing, Jefferson was every day talking the language of the English common law; and that although he went further than some of his fellow lawyers in his desire for legal reform - of feudal tenures, of entails, of the law of inheritance, of criminal law, and of established religion - yet even these projects were not, at least to start with, part of a coherent theory of society. They remained discrete reforms, improvements on the English common law.

By 1775 Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England had sold nearly as many copies in America as in England. The significant fact - as Boorstin suggests - is that such a work as Blackstone's Commentaries, and the institutions which it expounded, could continue to dominate the legal thinking of a people who were rebelling against the country of its origin.

The picture of Abraham Lincoln sitting barefoot on a woodpile in Illinois fifty years later reading the volumes of this English lawyer, which Lincoln called the foundation of his own legal education - symbolises the continuity of thinking about institutional arrangements.

Incidentally, it was from the village of Hingham in my own South Norfolk constituency that nearly 370 years ago, in 1637, one Samuel Lincoln, the great great great great great great great grandfather of Abraham Lincoln, left England to help found Hingham here in Massachusetts.

The American Revolution was at least in part a stern rebuke to the British about where we had gone wrong, an affirmation of faith in ancient institutions and arrangements which set limits and controls on those who had power.

And the desire - the felt need for these institutional arrangements, and what they represent in the relationship between government and the governed - this is where I start when I think about America, at least when I think about America politically.

When I think of America generally, I think most of the word optimism. Of all the things I love about America and the American people: the energy, the dynamism, the openness and the friendliness, the enthusiasm, the adventurous spirit, the willingness to try new things, the refusal to believe things can't be done, the famous ‘can-do’ attitude, the thing I love most is the optimism. For me it is optimism that sums up these other things and which sums up America.

It is optimism about people and what they can do if they are given the chance.

It is optimism about the energy which can be generated if people are given the opportunity to help themselves.

It is what Colin Powell meant when he said ‘self-belief is a force-multiplier’.

It is what Jesse Jackson meant when he said ‘I was born in the slum but the slum was not born in me’.

It is a deep belief that human beings are essentially good and indeed that good will triumph over evil.

For me one of the most deeply attractive qualities about Americans, part of their straightforwardness, is their innocence - Americans will generally start by assuming the best about people, because they start from a basic faith in people.

But when I think of America politically, I do not think first about optimism - or, indeed, innocence.

I think first about distrust. I think about a nation founded on distrust of government. I think about a people who had a set of arrangements for government which they understood as giving them ancient rights to check and call to account those who had the power of government over them - rights which they saw being steadily traduced by an imperious government and an imperious King.

The last time I was in the US I had the chance to visit the national cathedral in Washington DC. In the nave of the cathedral is a large pulpit carved in stone. I was very interested to see that around its base is a scene from England - the barons at Runnymede handing the Magna Carta to King John. What impressed itself upon me very strongly was that around the very pulpit of one of the most significant religious buildings in the United States lies a tribute not to the glories of those who have power but to the limits placed upon them.

So when I think about America, politically, and I think about the Declaration of Independence, arguably the most important political document written since the Magna Carta, I think about a reaffirmation of traditional rights that had been trampled underfoot.

This is why institutionally the American Revolution inspired so little change - and why so many of the traditions of the Anglo-Saxon approach to governing have been cherished here as they are in England, although they are now in some cases under threat as rarely before: trial by jury, due process of law, habeas corpus, freedom from attainder, independence of the judiciary, and the rights of free speech, free petition, free assembly, a narrow definition of treason, and of course representation before taxation - Revenue Bills must start in the lower House to reflect the more democratic nature of the House; and it’s the same with us.

There are numerous other parallels - in the Congress you have a Speaker of the House and in Parliament so do we; you have a Chairman of Ways and Means, and so do we; you have a Serjeant at Arms; and so do we.

But far more important than these job titles is the cultural importance in both the United States and in the British system of institutions that place limits upon the power of those who govern us.

And this is why the United States is so intriguing for British politicians, particularly those who are sceptical about the claims of government . It is not just that we find the language quite easy. It is that, as Larry Siedentop, an American academic based in Oxford, said in his recent book, Democracy in Europe, American federalism is in some respects simply the eighteenth-century Whig constitution which England never quite got around to giving itself.

In America there has always been a basic belief that there should be no power that is uncontrolled and unreviewable; that arbitrary, unchecked government must always be resisted; that government did not come down from on high but that the people themselves for their own convenience instituted a contract between government and the governed; and that government exists at the behest of the people and that it is the people who can get rid of it.

For me what makes America so special is that in this country there has always been a boundless optimism and a deep and abiding faith in people and at the same time a deep suspicion of government, with a clear sense that a wise person will not trust government too much and will have a keen and somewhat sceptical eye on what government does.

Why Governments Lie

In his James Cameron Memorial Lecture, Why Governments Lie, the great Ben Bradlee, one of the most distinguished of all American journalists and of course editor of the Washington Post at the time of Watergate, describes a press conference at the airport in Saigon in December 1963. The then Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, at the end of his first fact-finding trip to Vietnam for the new American President, Lyndon Johnson, told reporters that he was 'optimistic as to the progress that had been and could be made during the coming year' in the fight against the Vietcong.

When he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington the next day, Mr McNamara told another press conference that “we have every reason to believe that [US military plans for 1964] will be successful”.

He then disappeared into a helicopter for the White House lawn and had a one to one session with the President in the Oval Office. For seven and a half years, there was no report of the conversation that took place between Mr McNamara and President Johnson.

Only after the so-called Pentagon Papers court case did we find out what Mr McNamara really thought. It turns out that he told President Johnson the exact opposite of what he had told the world at the press conferences. In fact Mr McNamara had returned from Vietnam ‘laden with gloom’. He told the President that: “Vietcong progress has been very great, with my best guess being that the situation has in fact been deteriorating to a far greater extent than we realized. The situation is very disturbing”.

Ben Bradlee wondered out loud what might have happened, how history might have changed, if those comments had been made at the airport in Saigon, if those lies had gone unspoken at Andrew Air Force Base. He asked us to reflect on one of the eternal verities of journalism - that the truth, the whole truth, emerges eventually, and that that is the way it is supposed to be.

He went on to describe a news report in August 1964 in Time magazine:

“Through the darkness, from the west and the south, the intruders boldly sped. There were at least six of them, Russian-designed ‘swatow’ gunboats armed with 37-millimeter and 28-millimeter guns, and P-4s”.

“At 9.52 they opened fire on the destroyers with automatic weapons, and this time from as close as 2,000 yards. The night glowed eerily with the nightmarish glare of air-dropped flares and boats' searchlights. Two of the enemy boats went down”.

As Bradlee said, he didn't mean to single out Time:

“On the same date, Life said almost the same thing and that week's Newsweek has torpedoes whipping by US ships, blazing out salvo after salvo of shells. It had a PT boat bursting into flames and sinking. It had mountainous seas and swirling rains and everything that your English teacher loves to read”.

“Only one trouble. There was no battle. There was not a single intruder, never mind six of them. Never mind Russian-designed swatow boats armed with 37-millimeter and 28-millimeter guns. They never opened fire. They never sank. They never fired torpedoes. They never were”.

This so-called Battle of Tonkin Gulf, which supposedly happened on 4 August 1964, was the sole basis of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was the entire justification for the United States war against Vietnam. President Johnson went on television that very night to ask the country to support a Congressional resolution.

The resolution was sent to Congress the next day and passed unanimously by the House and by 88-2 in the Senate.

Why was there such inaccurate news coverage? In his book on Vietnam, The War Within: America's Battle over Vietnam, the author Tom Wells points to the media's 'almost exclusive reliance on US government officials as sources of information'. In Daniel Hallin's book, The Uncensored War, he observes that journalists had a great deal of information available which contradicted the official account of the events in Tonkin Gulf - it just wasn't used.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Sydney Schanberg, another great American journalist, warned his colleagues not to forget “our unquestioning chorus of agreeability when Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident”.

Schanberg added: “We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth”.

The Question of Iraq

I turn to the biggest issue in the presidential election, at least for most foreigners, and that is the issue of Iraq.

I think Ben Bradlee was right. The truth usually does come out in the end. And in the case of Iraq, too, there always was a great deal of information which contradicted the government's account - it just wasn't used.

More and more will emerge. Some has been emerging recently. We have just been told Tony Blair was warned that sorting out Iraq, if we invaded, would be far more difficult than one might at first suppose, and that it might take a generation.

We have just been told by Donald Rumsfeld that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and the hijackers of September 11th, which was in fact quite easy to work out - and was worked out - before the invasion of Iraq, first, because no credible evidence was ever presented that there was such a link and no serious commentator ever suggested that there was; and second, because common sense suggests that a brutal secular dictator based in Baghdad is rather unlikely to want to help religious extremists overthrow the existing order in the Arab world in order to set up a new Caliphate - with its capital in Baghdad.

Doubtless there is more to come but I believe a rough draft of the truth is already available. I think it looks something like this:

There was clear plan to invade Iraq in order to topple Saddam Hussein, a timetable even, with which President Bush arrived in office. There were then the terrible events of September 11th. The perpetrators of that wicked crime were nearly all from Saudi Arabia and there was no link to Saddam Hussein. Yet it was judged that if Saddam and the events of September 11th could be conflated, there still might be an opportunity for those who wanted to topple Saddam to accelerate their plans.

There followed a period in which reasons were sought for undertaking an invasion which had already been decided upon. Intelligence agencies were placed under huge pressure to find acceptable reasons for an invasion, they were told to stretch the use of the available information. This was done safe in the knowledge that if, later, the reasons which the intelligence agencies supplied started to look threadbare, one could just blame them for poor intelligence. Would anyone be able to show beyond dispute that they had known the weakness of the case all along? Would anyone be able to show beyond dispute that the agencies had been told to stretch the facts beyond what they could credibly bear?

And thus it was that we duly invaded and occupied a country that did not pose a threat to us, had not attacked us, and did not want war with us, in order to disarm it of weapons which it did not have, despite clear warnings that an occupation would be far more difficult than we might think and despite not having enough troops to do the job properly, and did all of this - in a region of the world well known for the complexity of its tribal, ethnic and religious differences - without a plan for how to win the peace afterwards, while at the same time largely ignoring the central grievance in the Arab world, the failure to find an acceptable way forward for both Israel and Palestine.

The result of all this has been to replace a brutal police state with a failed state, with the one thing we feared most and which we had been warning against - as in Somalia and Afghanistan and Liberia - the very thing that was more sure than anything else to provide a breeding ground and a magnet for international terrorism.

As a Member of Parliament I twice had the opportunity last year, in February 2003 and March 2003, to vote against war with Iraq. And twice that is precisely what I did, because if personal responsibility is a central component of democracy, then it seems to me essential not knowingly to vote for killing people unless presented with unanswerable reasons for doing so. And I was never given those reasons, mainly, I believe, because they didn't exist.

How this leaves the presidential election is a matter I would not wish to advise you on. As I observed earlier, I do not have a vote in the Presidential Election and I would not presume to tell you how to exercise yours.

I leave you with thoughts of the great Daniel Boorstin:

“To tell people what institutions they must have, whether we tell them with the Voice of America or with the Money of America, is the thorough denial of our American heritage. An imposed democracy expresses a corroding cynicism. And democratic institutions, however much they may rest on pessimism, must be the opposite of cynical”.

One of the reasons I love America is because she is not cynical. America is so special precisely because of the way she combines the innocence and the optimism of Americans with a worldliness about the nature of government - and because she was founded upon arrangements which do not place trust in government but which instead keep government in its place.

I say have a care for your beautiful Republic.

Have a care for your special position in this world and the responsibilities it brings.

Keep your optimism about people.

Keep your faith that people are good.

And even if you must temper your innocence, keep that too.

But above all, never lose your caution about the claims of those who hold power.

Thank you very much.

 


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