Janet Street-Porter: Show a little more respect, please

America has turned out to possess in spades the one quality missing here - good manners
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The Independent Online

Today sees the culmination of an election campaign characterised by resentment, accusations and counter-accusations, suspicion and apathy. Desperate for a break from the uninspiring battle between Blair, Howard and Kennedy, I spent Saturday night in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Washington, at the 91st annual White House correspondents' dinner. A raucous, dressy affair, it was preceded by drinks parties hosted by all the major news networks. I chatted to Helen Mirren as Condoleezza Rice made her way across the room. Richard Gere was sitting on the next table, Elle MacPherson a few feet away.

The guests were a mixture of journalists, government officials, broadcasters and celebrities - Lachlan Murdoch, Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Dennis Hopper and LL Cool J. After the dinner, Democrats, Republicans, and lobbyists listened as the President made a mercifully brief speech and then handed over to his wife who stylishly delivered a well-written comedy monologue, claiming she was a "desperate housewife" whose husband was in bed each night by 9pm. The room rocked with appreciative laughter - no sneering and no fawning. Mrs Bush stole the show. The point of the story is, I just couldn't imagine it happening in Britain. America, the country we've spent so long mocking as a load of xenophobic, uncultured, obese simpletons, has turned out to possess in spades the one quality that has been missing at every level from our election campaign: good manners.

After a bitter and narrowly contested American presidential election campaign last year, the world hasn't ground to a halt, business is continuing as normal. On occasions like this, Americans are able to set aside their political differences and behave in a civilised manner.

It would be impossible to stage an event in Britain like the one I attended in Washington. Over here, the evening would be disrupted by hecklers, the flashing of bare bottoms, the waving of placards and uncontrollable ranting. And, if he were asked to speak, Mr Blair wouldn't have got a word in edgeways as pro-hunters or animal rights protesters would have stormed the stage. The icing on the cake would probably be a couple of chaps in superman gear from Fathers 4 Justice abseiling from the balcony. And as for Cherie Blair getting a laugh? No chance. Some might call this imagined scenario the exercising of freedom of speech - but, to me, our increasingly raucous and belligerent behaviour towards politicians has become symptomatic of something darker.

During this election campaign, millions of viewers who would never normally stay up for Newsnight have tuned in to see Jeremy Paxman savagely attack the party leaders on television, as if they were witnessing a legal blood sport. In discussion programmes on all channels over the past few weeks, large numbers of the public seem to have lost what little manners they ever had and regard it as their democratic right to bellow, heckle and snarl at Mr Blair, taking up where Mr Paxman left off. There is no sense of respect at all. The man must be punished and punished most publicly. Mr Howard is addressed as if he's a slightly slippery chap you've run into at the pub.

Not surprisingly, the two main party leaders have retaliated and turned walkabouts into photo opportunities with little opportunity for "free speech" and interaction with the mob. And to be fair, the public are only picking up on how they see politicians themselves behave.

When they are not being patronising and obtuse and refusing to answer anything directly, they are major league sulkers. Blair and Brown, like two pandas being prepared for the mating ritual, have temporarily buried the hatchet for the final countdown. But their body language is pathetic, more appropriate for Kevin the stroppy teenager than a couple of middle- aged married men. Two powerful women, whatever their differences, would never stoop to this pathetic level of whispers, innuendo and obvious distrust.

Then there's Mr Prescott, far more bellicose and charmless than the much-maligned Wayne Rooney. In 2001, Mr Prescott slogged a protester in front of the cameras - far from getting a red card, he was rewarded with the deputy premiership. This time around, he has told a Welsh reporter to bugger off and get off the campaign bus, slagged off John Birt to the press and been incensed by a few harmless Greenpeace protesters, not to mention anyone who dares to ask a question he can't inarticulately waffle his way out of.

Can you honestly go and tell young people to seek a career in politics with this lot of role models at the helm? Mr Howard signally fails to let anyone else in his party say anything and Mr Kennedy still seems best suited to a career as a television chat show host. I'm not surprised that the Electoral Commission rejected the idea of giving the vote to 16-year-olds last year - young people are far more idealistic than our elected representatives.

There are some exceptions - on the Today programme the other morning, good manners and civility prevailed as Freddie Forsyth, Brian Eno and David Hare discussed their voting intentions. For 10 wonderful minutes, no one interrupted each other, they all managed to articulate different positions without calling each other liars, they didn't trash each other's track record and sneering was totally absent.

It was situation normal next day as the professional politicians sounded increasingly desperate. Mind you, the rowdy behaviour shown by some of the public lately could stem from feeling ignored by the people they elected to run the country. A million people demonstrated against a war in Iraq - but no one in power seemed to notice. Millions will see the votes they cast today make little difference - because our politicians have denied us the undoubtedly fairer system of proportional representation.

The Tories have conducted a negative campaign focused on fear - fear of crime and asylum-seekers, fear of unnamed invaders of their vision of Little Britain. Ordinary people are asked to vote for a government that has increased bureaucracy tenfold and whose leader places healthpolicy at the top of his priorities but who has no idea of how to get an appointment to visit a doctor. We teach citizenship, but almost a quarter of all children leave primary school not being able to read and write properly. Joined-up government?

The turnout at the polls today will probably be the lowest since the Second World War, reflecting a serious breakdown in trust between politicians and their voters. Both sides have behaved badly, but bad-mouthing and trashing people you don't agree with is no way to run a classroom or a football match, let alone the country.