Politics & Law

Politics, British-style: Imagine an anthropologist could be elected

Rosemary Joyce

It is possible that there are still people in the US who don’t realize that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist, but for members of the discipline, the influence of Stanley Ann Dunham on her son has been a topic of conversation since he entered the presidential race as a long shot. Dunham’s book Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, published this month, 15 years after her tragic death, resulted from fieldwork that took her and her young son to Indonesia from 1967 to 1971.

Now the United Kingdom has pushed the visibility of anthropologists in politics even higher, with the leadership of Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg thrusting him into contention for the role of Prime Minister.

In the UK, Clegg has been represented (and vilified) as “the British Barack Obama”, with news coverage describing Clegg’s use of the image of a journey as linking him to Obama, commentary on supposed similarities in political programs, and even a Clegg photo colored to resemble the famous red-white-and-blue Obama poster.

Most of all, there was Clegg’s unexpected success in the first televised debate of Britain’s terrifically short campaign season. As reported in the New York Times, Clegg “seized the opportunity with a performance that matched his telegenic looks with astute attacks on Labour and the Conservatives”, the two majority parties locked in a struggle for control of the largest number of parliamentary seats, and ideally, a majority that would let one party form a new government.

“We can rise to the challenges if we say no to the two old parties, which have been playing pass-the-parcel for 65 years,” Clegg is reported to have said in the first debate, which was marked by his rivals repeatedly saying “I agree with Nick”, a phrase one British paper compared to Obama’s slogan “Yes we can”.

Commentators in the British press singled out Clegg’s greater ease with the televised debate format familiar to US voters, used for the first time in the UK in this election:

More than his rivals, he demonstrated an instant understanding of the format. All his answers were delivered to the camera, since that was where the audience that mattered was to be found. He addressed questioners by their first name, a habit later picked up, though less naturally, by the others. He was studiedly colloquial – “You won’t believe this, Jacqueline” – and cast himself as the rebel. “Apparently I’m not allowed to ask you questions,” he said to one member of the audience, “so just nod your head.”

The result of having multiple distinct political positions represented vigorously has been an election that is described as the most closely contested in decades. Exit polls at the close of voting gave the lead to Britain’s Conservative Party, with Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, as expected, in third place behind the Labour Party, which was struggling to hold on to power in the wake of scandals and voter unhappiness.

High voter turnout (up to 80%) was reported, leading in some places to long lines when the polls closed at 10 PM. Newspapers reported that

there were angry scenes around the country tonight after hundreds of voters were unable to vote when polling stations closed at 10pm despite queueing for hours, casting a shadow over the results of the election

creating controversy about the outcome of voting.

Mail-in votes reportedly might delay final results. The ruling Labour party, hoping that the Conservative Party will fall short of a majority, is refusing to concede defeat, hoping to form a coalition government with Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives, meanwhile, plan to form their own coalition with a smaller party, the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, if need be.

At the center of this swirl of politics is Nick Clegg: an anthropologist trained at Cambridge University, whose wife is Spanish, and who credits his family background– a Dutch mother and half-Russian father– for his “internationalist outlook”, all aspects of his biography that led to attacks during the late stages of the campaign.

While it is clear that we aren’t about to see an anthropologist lead the UK, and the closest anthropologists have reached to the top office in the US is First Mother, it is encouraging to see anthropology, with its appreciation of cultural difference and its understanding of globalization in tension with that difference, in the political mix. And I can’t help wondering what would happen in the US if a serious third party with an equally well-prepared leader were part of the mix.

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