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Tea, scones and British politics

Debate on the looming UK election was a crash course in how voting works in Britain, and high tea with the Ambassador

»This is just bloody fantastic,« enthuses Martin Krasnik, journalist for the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen at the University of Copenhagen’s debate meeting about the coming British election Tuesday .

Indeed, Thursday’s election, with its unexpected twists and microphone scandals, has roused enough students to fill the Ceremonial Hall.

The hall is decked in the garb of an East-End street party, with wall-to-wall Union Jack bunting, although the crowd is predominantly Danish speaking, perhaps because most of the programme is in Danish.

Or maybe the Brits are keeping quiet, contemplating Thursday’s big decision: Cameron, Brown or Clegg?

Ambassador’s lips are sealed

However, rather than a discussion of the of the three candidate’s policies, their chances of winning, or their election mishaps, the debate becomes more of a discussion of the pros and cons of the British ‘first-past-the-post’ system of voting (see fact box to the right).

Nick Archer, UK Ambassador to Denmark, opens the event, but is quick to point out that his role is that of »a member of the audience.«

His lips are diplomatically sealed on the question of who ought to win the British election and why; a not entirely comfortable situation for the Danish speaking Brit: »It will be frustrating to listen to four Danes speak about an election in my country, among my people, and have to keep my mouth shut,« he quips.

Then, Mads Qvortrup from the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom sets the tone for the event with a a ten minute crash course in the British electoral system.

Elected dictatorship

He is followed by Jens Rahbek Rasmussen, from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, who summarises the logic of the British vote: apparently it is something of a mystery for the average Dane.

The advantage of the British system, he says, is that it gives a strong government which is able make decisions without asking anyone, a kind of »elected dictatorship«.

It also hold small extremist parties out, so extreme right-wing parties like the British National Party could never come to any degree of power, he explains.

The Nasty Party

Martin Krasnik stands up to take the podium, in true British parliamentary style. His enthusiasm for all things British is infectious, as he takes us through Cameron’s modernisation of the Conservative party, or »the Nasty Party«, as Labour calls them.

Superficially, Cameron has created a more diverse and inclusive Tory party, with more homosexuals, women and ethnic minorities than any other party, »and much more than today’s panel, when it comes to that!« jokes Krasnik.

But under the multicultural façade, the new Conservatives are still upper-middle class products of Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge universities, ed.) and private schools, he explains. »British conservatives are truly conservatives. They don’t take to change easily.«

A bad version of X-factor

Finally, Ole Helmersen, of Copenhagen Business School tackles the economic issues surrounding the election.

»This election has been focussed on personalities as though it were a bad version of X-factor, rather than the economic realities facing the new government,« he says, pointing out that the party that wins has to face a recession economy and run a country with the highest private debt, per person, in Europe.

In the ensuing debate, the panel touches on a number of issues that have dominated the British election so far: Britain’s position in Europe, how the British public feel about politicians and the red hot issue of immigration.

Sick of politicians

Indeed, on the subject of immigration, Liberal party leader Nick Clegg, who has enjoyed a boost in popularity in the run-up to the election, has caused something of a stir, by voicing plans to give all illegal immigrants amnesty, so that they can contribute with taxes to the national government.

Journalist Martin Krasnik thinks he knows why this radical suggestion has been received relatively calmly by British voters:

»When Clegg says that he wants to give a half million illegal immigrants amnesty, and the voters don’t run away screaming, it seems like Brits are more sceptical of politicians than they are of immigrants. They are just so sick of politicians. All of them,« he says.

It’s a good thing there are just two days to go.

The election debate is rounded off in true British style, at a reception complete with afternoon tea in bone china cups, and, of course, scones.