Ketchum Pleon senior partner and president David Gallagher is the ThinkTank EMEA commentator until the summer, responding to provocative news issues on a weekly basis.
NEWSFLASH: Britons held a special referendum last week to consider major changes to its parliamentary election system. You can be forgiven for missing this (the No’s won) under the avalanche of Osama Bin Laden coverage, and I’ll leave the partisan analyses for others, but I do find interesting at least two signs of creeping “Americaness” invading the British political landscape.
First was the ubiquitous and sometimes odd use of celebrities. Both campaigns rolled out a smorgasbord of advocates: comedians, sporting personalities and reality TV stars. The Yes campaign produced the usual suspects – Billy Bragg, Eddie Izzard and Stephen Fry to name but a few. Meanwhile the No campaign’s offering included cricketer and Strictly Come Dancing champion, Darren Gough and, equally as mystifying, table-dancing nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow.
The media have been criticised in some quarters for failing to engage with the campaigns, but the dependency on celebrities, rather than cohesive and simple arguments from either side left the press with little choice. In the weeks and months before the referendum, when each campaign should have been communicating the pros and cons of their preferred system, the electorate was instead subject to a tirade of unintelligible playground squabbles.
Second was a strong strain of negative campaigning – not unique to American politics, of course, but the tone and tenor in the run-up took sounded more like a Tea Party town hall meeting than a debate on democracy. There are perfectly sound arguments for both systems, yet the campaigns repeatedly failed to engage the electorate on this level. Instead we were told about lazy MPs, monstrously expensive elections, overly complicated ballot papers and so on. Rather than inspiring a beleaguered electorate, this negativity only served to feed the more general cynicism and disillusionment the British public feel towards politics as a whole at the moment.
A third-aspect of the vote may be more a sign of modern, round-the-clock internet fuelled politics than Americanization: the impact of unforeseen circumstances. There are many reasons why Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s decision to hold the referendum so soon after the general election could be considered strategically flawed, but those aside, he could never have predicted the death of Osama Bin Laden or the world’s reaction to the royal wedding (not to mention to Pippa Middleton). Both of these events played out dramatically in real time on a global stage immediately preceding the vote and I believe made it much harder to sell the idea of change at a time when many people were pretty happy with the way things are.