British Politicians Might Be Watching Too Many 'West Wing' Re-Runs

By Corinne Purtill

    LONDON, UK - With one year to go before the general election, there's a decidedly American scent in the air around Whitehall, the central palace that houses many government offices.

    The Labour Party has hired David Axelrod, the campaign consultant behind President Barack Obama's 2008 election. Not to be outdone, the Conservatives have taken on board Jim Messina, Obama's former deputy chief of staff and 2012 campaign manager.

    Even the idea of a yearlong campaign trail is something of a Yankee import. No general election in British history has had its date fixed so far in advance, this time thanks to an agreement struck when the coalition government was formed in 2010.

    But whether the public will buy politicians' flirting with American-style campaigning remains to be seen.

    James D. Boys, a senior research fellow at King's College London, believes a globalized media is partly responsible for the new direction.

    "You've got a generation of British politicians who have come to office in the last few years who loved ‘The West Wing,'" he says, adding that they also see American strategists debating each other on CNN and think, "I want one of those. I want a war room of my own."

    Don't expect confetti or crazy hats at the party conventions this fall, however. UK campaigns are a lot more low-key than America's. Televised debates didn't even take place until the last elections in 2010.

    The key difference is that no one in Britain votes for a prime minister. Brits cast ballots only for their local members of parliament. The party with the majority of regional seats forms a government and its leader is typically named prime minister.

    With less emphasis on the individual candidates and more on the party, the executive's office is a lot less glamorous than its American counterpart. Pomp and circumstance in public life is really reserved for the Windsors, across town.

    No British equivalent of "Hail to the Chief" starts playing as if by magic when a prime minister enters a room. The official residence at 10 Downing Street is an unassuming townhouse, not a giant white mansion.

    Britain is the only G7 country without an executive air fleet a la Air Force One, which leads to all kinds of "Politicians - They're Just Like Us!" moments. Like the day in September when Prime Minister David Cameron was caught leaving his official government briefcase unguarded on a public commuter train while he got a snack from the dining car.

    It's not hard to see why some prime ministers might long for the relative deference Americans shows their political class, says Boys, the author of a forthcoming book on US foreign policy during the Clinton years.

    "Just imagine what it must be like to be a British prime minister. You spend your time in parliament being heckled and shouted at in prime minister's questions," he says of the often raucous weekly sessions during which the prime minister is obliged to respond to MPs. "Then you fly to Washington. You're courted by the Americans. You get invited to the Oval Office. You're seen as a visiting superstar."

    British leaders "like what they see over there," Boys adds.

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