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New York Times London bureau chief, John Burns, on the final UK prime ministerial debate

Thursday, April 29, 2010

HH: Joining us now to discuss what happened tonight, where the election stands, is John Burns. He is the London bureau chief of the New York Times. John Burns, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

JB: It’s always a pleasure, Hugh.

HH: Well, thank you. How did it go tonight? You just finished watching it. What happened, if anything?

JB: Well, I think quite a lot happened tonight. I think it was a lot livelier. The focus groups and the early polls suggest a clear win by David Cameron, which could be very important, because the vote’s only a week away now. The Tories have been holding a narrow poll lead over the surging Liberal Democrats, but everything, many people thought, depended on the last of three televised debates tonight. And Cameron looked very assured, looked straight into the camera, an altogether better performance than he put in the last two weeks. And I think that we many now be looking at not just a Conservative, a narrow Conservative victory, but even possibly a Conservative majority, a very narrow Conservative majority. But then again, there are seven days to go, and this is a volatile political situation. So we’ll have to wait and see.

HH: Now John Burns, I’ve got to start with the obvious. Did the immigration kerfuffle that hobble the Gordon Brown campaign yesterday come up tonight?

JB: He dealt with it immediately, and I must say very effectively, by saying in his very first words, within the first minute of the debate, a 90 minute debate, that there’s a lot to being prime minister, and then he said I don’t always get it right as you’ll have seen from what happened yesterday. It was the only reference to that incident, that gaffe calling the 65 year old widow, a pensioner, who raised immigration, bigoted. Neither of the other two prime ministerial contenders mentioned it. And in fact, what happened was what you would hope would happen, which was the issue was not what Mr. Brown said in a live lapel mic, when he was thought he was talking privately to an aide, which was after all, in the scheme of things, rather a minor event. But the issue, immigration, that along with the economy was the dominant issue of the night, and again, was something that seemed to play more to Mr. Cameron’s strengths than to the other two contenders.

HH: Now I spent considerable time on yesterday’s program, John Burns, talking to Christopher Hitchens about the immigration issue in Great Britain. I’d like to talk to you about it. I also learned that Nick Clegg had been his intern at The Nation many years ago, so that was a stunner. But…

JB: That’s something I knew, but haven’t yet written in the Times. I’ll have to remember to mention it, because it’s quite a Quixotic element to all of this.

HH: It really is. I asked him if there is anything saucy I could get out of him, and he said Heavens no, we just did lunch. So there is no dirt there, but it was still nevertheless interesting.

JB: Yeah.

HH: What about the immigration issue? How did they divide tonight, and what did they say about it?

JB: Look, Brown, of course, is in a difficult position, because the most common phrase that Mr. Cameron used tonight was 13 year, 13 year, 13 years. Imagine, the longest period of time anybody can stay in the White House is eight years. This country has had a Labour government for 13 years. It’s an exhausted government. It’s a government that has, by ill management or ill luck, of course, survived into a period which is the worst recession since the Depression. So Brown is in a position of trying to defend a record which on immigration, like on much else, is a hard sell. This country, now these figures, you have to take into account that Britain is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, not a great deal bigger than California, I believe. I may get whacked for saying that, but in any event, you understand the proportion.

HH: Sure.

JB: In the United States, 310 million people in a country that is really a continent. This country, 62 million people on what Shakespeare called a Sceptered Isle. So an inflow, a net inflow of two million people under Labour in the last 13 years has in fact placed enormous strains on the health, education and welfare systems. That’s what Brown has to defend, and he’s not made a very good case over it. Cameron puts a very simple case – we’ve got to cap it. We’ve got to bring it down to tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands a year, and we’ve got to take this issue out of the public debate. He’s very careful not to allow anything he says about it to have a racial tinge, because as you will remember, Hugh, there was a politician here called Enoch Powell, who in 1968…

HH: Right.

JB: …a Conservative politician, who destroyed his own career with some very ill-judged remarks about rivers forming with blood if immigration, which was then at 50,000 a year, mostly from the Caribbean when it was not curbed. Clegg, for his part, has a proposal which has a certain logic to it, there is very good logic to it, but it’s very hard to sell, something else that Americans will understand. His principal proposal is an amnesty for about a million illegal immigrants, that’s to say about half the people who have come to Britain, to get them, if you will, out of the hands, as he puts it, of the criminal gangs, into the tax register’s and regularized. But interesting, perhaps, for American listeners to hear, both Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron then immediately cite what has happened in the United States, where well-intentioned amnesties of the same kind have led. So it is said here, in any event, only ten or fifteen years later, to a much larger backlog of illegal immigrants who have been attracted in by the earlier amnesties. Brown and Cameron say that the same thing would happen here.

HH: Now Nick Clegg is the most Euro-expansive of the three, is he not, John Burns?

JB: He is. He is in more ways than one. In his policies, he has a manifesto which talks about joining the Euros, or as to say scrapping the Pound sterling as Britain’s currency and adopting the Euro at an appropriate time. Now that’s a very hard sell at a time when Greece, as you know, is in a state of economic meltdown, a member of the Euro zone, forcing Germany to step up to the plate with billions of dollars of deutschmarks to bail out Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, heading, some say, in the same direction. So the Euro is poison right now, politically, in the UK. Clegg did not do well on that tonight. He kind of fudged on it, as he fudged on immigration, saying no, he didn’t have amnesty in his manifesto. He looked for the first time in three debates uneasy, unsure, and not, to tell you the truth, entirely straight. Now Clegg is a very European person. His mother is Dutch, an admirable woman who spent time in the Japanese internment camp in South Asia during the Second World War. His father is half Russian. His grandmother was a Russian aristocrat. He himself was a member of the European parliament, Clegg. He speaks four or five languages. He dressed with all the savvy and finesse of a Continental European. And I say that as a typically ill-dressed Brit. So he is European both in policy, in demeanor, and in personal inclination.

HH: And do they run the same kind of post-debate endless chattering about what’s just happened, John Burns? We’re coming right back after the break here, but for 30 seconds, do they do the spin room?

JB: Yes, in another way, even as I speak, the spin’s going on just off the studio where the debate happened. And as usual, it’s all completely predictable. You have Tories, Labours and Liberal Democrats all vaunting their man as the winner.

– – – –

HH: John Burns, this is Great Britain’s first experience with these sorts of debates. And thinking back through their storied history, one would have loved to have seen Disraeli and Gladstone, perhaps an Irishman there sitting, going about it. But I’m not sure…what do you think about this? Is your country doing what you think is a good thing when it is embracing sort of American television politics?

JB: Oh, absolutely. I think that of course there’s a good deal of wariness here in Britain about the Americanization of the political system. You don’t have to scratch very far below the surface in the UK, particularly in certain sections of the upper middle class, to find a kind of residual anti-Americanism, something that I find pretty tiresome. Tony Blair called it a, what did he call it, a foolish indulgence. It is. I think that politically, in terms of system, this country has much to gain by studying the American system. And the prime ministerial debates, 50 years, starting 50 years after the first American televised election debate between Nixon and Kennedy, have been entirely, entirely a good thing, because the fact is that the prime minister in this country, in the parliamentary system, has every bit as much power as the president has in the United States. And in fact, you could argue that he has more. And so an election which puts the contest between the three principal contenders for that job up there on the television screen, three weeks running for 90 minutes at a time, can only be a good thing.

HH: And did it hold the attention of the average British citizen? As you walk around the city, and as you talk to friends around the country, did they fascinate in the say that the American public stops and actually watches those things?

JB: Well yes, and this may be true also of the United States. In the first debate, there were ten million people who watched that. It fell away last week to four million. And tonight, I think it was likely to be another ten million. And the middle debate was on a cable television channel, Sky, which accounted for that four. That’s a lot of people in an electorate of slightly less than 50 million people. On the other hand, it’s slightly less than watched the most popular soaps on television. So yeah, a lot of people watched it. A lot of people said oh, I switched it off, or it’s dull, it’s wonkish, et cetera. On the other hand, when you ask people who they’re inclined to vote for, as I have done traveling with these leaders, the most common response comes from something they saw in the television debates.

HH: Interesting. Now I know it was opposite Coronation Street tonight, one of the most popular soaps in Great Britain.

JB: Absolutely. And Coronation Street, if I’m not mistaken, has a weekly audience of somewhat higher than 10 million, a little bit higher than 10 million. So you know, this is important. Not just one in five of the electorate, but probably one in three of those who are actually going to vote watching. That’s significant. And by the way, on the Americanization of the political process here, there are a rather large band of political consultants, many of them veterans of the Obama campaign, working here for all three of the political parties, I have to say somewhat in stealth fashion. They don’t, at least, respond to e-mails from the New York Times. It’s understandable that the parties, given the sensitivity about Americanization of the political system, don’t want to admit too openly how large a role some of these Americans have played. But you only have to watch the debates to see how the advice from the Americans has begun to shape the way in which these politicians present themselves.

HH: It’s very incongruous to think of Anita Dunn advising David Cameron, but there you have it. There’s always a defining line in these American debates, you know, Ford declaring Poland is free, there you go again from Ronald Reagan, I knew Jack Kennedy, you’re not Jack Kennedy…

JB: Yes.

HH: Was there a defining exchange tonight?

JB: You know, there was one rather stagey, and I think possibly ill-advised attempt by Clegg to do that, to borrow from the presidential elections, when he said, speaking to both Cameron and Brown at the same time, there you both, I think said, go again. Well, we know where he learned that line from, and it was too self-consciously staged. I thought that Brown looked very wonkish, and looked terribly tired tonight. He looked like what his government, in truth, seems evermore to be, that is to say exhausted and kind of on the ropes. Cameron looked fresh, self-assured, and he had a lot of punchy lines, 13 years was the one he used most often. He called Brown desperate, he described it as a dreadful government. Cameron, the lesson learned, I think, over the last three weeks, by Cameron in terms of television presentation was probably to listen less to these political consultants, and just be himself, just speak directly. Cameron, as American who have watched prime minister’s questions on I think some of the cable channels which carry it in the United States…

HH: Yes, very, very sharp. I’ll be right back with John Burns, one more segment from across the Atlantic with the London bureau chief of the New York Times.

– – – –

HH: The early polls, John Burns, UGov puts the Tory leader, Cameron, with 41% followed by Nick Clegg at 32%, and Gordon Brown at 25% on who won tonight, consistent with what you said a little bit earlier. And we’ve grabbed a little bit of audio, and it goes to the class issue a little bit. So I thought I would play this, cut number three, as Gordon Brown and David Cameron debate the inheritance tax.

GB: If David wants fairness in the tax system, why does he support this inheritance tax cut for only 3,000 families worth 200,000 pounds each? The biggest beneficiary of the Conservative manifesto is, as always, the richest estates in the country, and not the ordinary, hard-working people of this country. And if the Liberals want to cut child tax credits with the Conservatives, then I can say one thing. I will never form an alliance with a Conservative government that cuts child tax credits.

DD: David Cameron?

DC: Well, what you’re hearing is very desperate stuff from someone who’s in a desperate state. But you have heard from Labour and Gordon Brown that if you earn 20,000 pounds or over, you’re considered rich. You’re considered a target for the Labour government to go on wasting money this year, and to hit you with taxes next year. Now let me answer this question directly about inheritance tax. I believe in this country that if you work hard and you save money, and you put aside money, and you try to pay down your mortgage on a family home, you shouldn’t have to sell that or give it to the taxman when you die. You should be able to pass it on to your children. It’s the most natural human instinct of all. And I’m afraid these other two parties simply don’t understand that. Inheritance tax should only be paid by the richest, by the millionaires. It shouldn’t be paid by people who’ve worked hard and done the right thing in their lives. It’s not our top priority. Our top priority is helping those on the 20,000 pounds that are going to be hit by Gordon’s other tax. But should we try and encourage people to work hard and save? I say yes we should.

HH: Now John Burns, that is really a flashback to the classic Labour-Tory struggle the last sixty years. How much did that dominate, that kind of rhetoric tonight?

JB: Well, I think, I don’t want to sound here too much like a public relations spokesman for the Conservative Party, but what I’m saying to you about tonight’s performance is very much what I felt when I traveled with Mr. Cameron in Yorkshire in Northern England yesterday. I think that he has successfully made himself the voice of aspirational Britain in this campaign. And Brown sounds very much like the old class warrior that he was from his university days when he was Marxist, or close to it. And with the departure of Blair as prime minister three years ago in a kind of Labour Party putsch, organized by Brown, we’ve seen the Labour Party going back to what it was before Blair, who was a centrist, and some would say more Conservative than Labour prime minister. His departure, over the Iraq war as it happens, has left the Labour Party in the hands of a man who’s taken it, one way and another, a much, in some way back to what it was before. That’s what I saw tonight. I saw an old Labour Party against a more aspirational Conservative Party, a Conservative Party that Mr. Cameron’s close associates called the nasty party five years ago, which has been substantially remade by Mr. Cameron. And what you just played, I think, was a very telling exchange, where Cameron is saying look, making money, this is an American idea more than it’s a British idea, I have to say, at least in my lifetime, making money is not wrong. If you make money, you earn it honestly, you should be able to keep it and pass it to your children and your grandchildren.

HH: Now on the edges, I’ve seen in the papers the debate about the Trident. But I don’t know to what extent the Afghanistan war, the Trident, preparedness and terrorism has figured in this, John Burns. At what level is it behind, or underneath the surface of this debate about the recession and immigration?

JB: It really hasn’t featured a great deal. And you know, when I think about this, the role of wars and defense issues in elections here, my mind goes back to something that occurred when I was just an infant, and that was Winston Churchill guides Britain to a victory in the Second World War in May of 1945, and in July, he and the Conservatives are thrown out on their ear in a Labour landslide. What did that tell us? That wars don’t win elections, except, if I can sound a little bit … except exceptionally, as in Mrs. Thatcher winning reelection after the Falklands war. You know, it’s the economy, stupid. It’s domestic issues that decide elections in this country. The Conservatives and Labour are agreed in strong support for the war in Afghanistan. Labour got, Brown got Britain out of Iraq, which is deeply unpopular. The Liberals are a little bit more critical about Afghanistan, but it’s really not a political issue. What is an issue is the number of boys and women coming home in caskets. As for the Trident nuclear submarine deterrent, that is something of an issue, and I think Clegg, as he has on immigration, as he is on the Euro, as he is on a number of issue, is quite vulnerable on this when people start looking at the Liberal Democrats’ policy, because as Gordon Brown said in the first debate, get real, get real, he said, I think it was the first or the second debate, and Clegg, on the issue of the Trident nuclear missile submarines and scrapping them came up. He said you know, at a time when Iran and North Korea are busily equipping themselves as we think with nuclear weapons, just to strip Britain of its nuclear deterrent makes no sense at all. And I think that’s really the heart of popular opinion in the United Kingdom, too.

HH: Well John Burns, let’s conclude by assuming for a moment that David Cameron does what Ronald Reagan did with the last debate in 1980, which is seal the deal with the voting public so that he achieves not merely a dominant position in a hung parliament, but a majority, and he brings in whoever he brings in, and we’ve had Liam Fox on this program, et cetera. What do you expect a Tory government in 2010 to act like? And how would we see Great Britain change from across the Atlantic?

JB: I think a lot of baggage would be thrown overboard. I think you’d see a government that would be very, very tough. Economically, it’s going to have to do some very unpopular things. It’s going to have to raise taxes, it’s going to have to curb the public service. It’s going to have to work very hard to keep its promise not to touch the National Health Service. It’s going to have to do a lot of very difficult things. Some people say that this would be a good election to lose. But I think it’s going to be a more kind of practical government. There’s not going to be a great deal of ideology to it. I think a lot of government programs that have been developed by Labour in the social arena, a lot of, if you will, sociological innovations, to put it as neutrally as I can, I think that a lot of that is going to go overboard. I think that’s the hallmark of a Conservative government, if in fact that’s what happens.

HH: John Burns, thanks you for spending some time with us here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

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