Americans enjoy a quaint campaign; The Independent Archive

3 June 1987 With one week to go before the general election, Peter Pringle reports from Washington on press reaction to the way politics are conducted in the Old World

"IN LONDON to determine whether any of the candidates for prime minister has ever committed adultery," wrote Michael Kingsley, editor of the neo-conservative weekly magazine the New Republic, at the start of his British election diary this week.

"I've just been in Bolton," an American reporter based in London confided in me over a transatlantic telephone last week. "You know I've never been in Bolton before."

Once again, American reporters are sending some dispatches of their discoveries of the "quaintness" of British general election campaigns, so short-lived, snappy and packed with spice and general silliness compared to their own year-long presidential marathons.

The Americans have been seeking out, and finding, the usual string of British stereotypes in pubs, coal-mines, and bastions of the Establishment, to give a flavour of the Britain their readers always hunger for.

They have also been surprised at the high-frequency of discussions about issues and shocked by the level of vitriol compared with American presidential races.

Americans marvel that the deplorable lack of public telephones could be a "major issue". And that Labour would think of creating a Ministry of Women and not one of Ethnic Minorities.

It's widely reported here that Mrs Thatcher, variously described as "Miss Know-it-all" (columnist Anthony Lewis, New York Times), or being "nannyish and lecturing" (Karen de Young, Washington Post), will win, and that the "puckish and friendly" Mr Kinnock and his wife Glenys, "slender, blonde and just comfortably short of glamorous" (Ms de Young), cannot possibly get a majority of the votes.

The permutations of the vote that might lead to a hung parliament leave Americans, who are used to a straightforward two-party fight, somewhat cold. Time magazine felt it necessary to explain to their readers, in a discreet footnote, the nature of a hung parliament.

Inevitably, most American commentators are making comparisons between President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher. Both leaders have become symbols of national pride, but, note the Americans, Mr Reagan is generally loved by his people and Mrs Thatcher is not by hers.

"No one would accuse Mrs Thatcher of affability," wrote Mr Lewis: ". . . a nanny who is just about to spank her charges unless they shape up and learn the right answers."

Indeed, the spanking case of Harvey Proctor, at least to the casual eye here, caused more general interest than the general election.

Mr Proctor was a fine example of a sniggering foreign stereotype if ever Americans saw one. But, in comparing their president with Mrs Thatcher, Americans are constantly amazed, and often jealous, of her mastery of the issues and her sting.

"Exposed to the factual grilling on policy questions that Margaret Thatcher faces every Tuesday and Thursday in the House of Commons, the average American president would be fried into a curlicue," wrote Howell Raines in The New York Times.

"Imagine, for example, how Ronald Reagan would fare if, twice a week, he went before Congress to field questions on Contra aid, arms control and other issues," asked Mr Raines.

For his part, Mr Reagan, in two interviews with European journalists last week, was twice unable to contain his admiration for Mrs Thatcher, giving her a distant peck on the cheek, and, at the same time, delivering a short rap on the knuckles for Mr Kinnock and his anti- nuclear policies.

Otherwise, the politicians in Congress are generally showing little interest.

They appear so convinced of the Iron Lady's capacity to prevail that they haven't bothered to follow the movement of the "Tory gap", or even start thinking about what could happen to the US-UK special relationship if Labour won.

From the Home pages of `The Independent', Wednesday 3 June 1987

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