American politicians often imply that the real America is to be found in the democratic system as it plays out in small towns across the country. I decided to go looking for the English equivalent, and as soon as I heard that all the candidates for Salisbury’s seat in Parliament—including King Arthur, who’s running as an independent—would meet to answer questions from the voters, I knew I’d hit pay dirt. So last Sunday afternoon, off we went.
The action started in the parking lot. Anti-racist groups handed out pamphlets blasting the British National Party, and helped the Labour candidate distribute his statement explaining that he could not in good conscience share a platform with a BNP candidate, so he wouldn’t be going inside. His moral outrage may have been sincere, or perhaps, knowing it would take a miracle for him to win—Labour polled 8% there last time—he’d found a better way to spend his Sunday.
Inside, the crowd—mainly elderly people—sorted itself into the rows of seats. A coalition of local churches organized the meeting, and we wondered whether older people are more interested in politics, are more likely to be church members, or are just more likely to live in Salisbury. Eventually the room filled up with people of all ages, with standees packing the side aisles and lobby. After a while, though, my husband noticed somebody who really stood out. “There’s an interesting looking guy at the back, there, with a black rosette—the one with the really dark tan and the salt-and-pepper hair.”
Ah, yes. That would be King Arthur. He does have presence, and he does stand out in most crowds, though instead of his druid’s robe with the dragon design, he wore a white shirt and jeans plus the tie of his regiment (he’s ex-military). His black-and-white rosette didn’t take the ordinary round form; I’m sure it reflects forethought and not happenstance that he wears a shield-shaped rosette—he understands the power of symbols.
Frances Howard of UKIP, the UK Independence Party, said I could take her photo so readers could see her rosette (though it blends in with her blouse and so doesn’t stand out). She was extremely personable and I wished her well, but I had to wonder a bit when she asked, as many British people do, why we would ever want to move from the USA to the UK “when America is such a wonderful country”—a strange position for a politician. The most charitable spin I can give it is that at least she’s working to improve things as she sees it; as for her pro-USA stance, from the stage she stated flatly that “the pro-Israel lobby runs the foreign policy of the USA”, so perhaps her opinion is a bit skewed.
Rosetted or not, the seven candidates took the stage and began with a two-minute introduction from each. They went alphabetically, so the Conservative spoke first, stressing his long connection to Salisbury—his grandparents married in the church next door—and his willingness to make the tough decisions on local issues—such as a proposed bypass. Bypasses are political touchstones here; mention the word and tempers flare. (He didn’t, by the way, say where he stands on the currently proposed bypass for Salisbury. Note to voters: He’s for it.)
Next came an independent candidate who gave his introduction while holding an open Bible. He, too, stressed his deep roots in the community, and then we were on to the UKIP candidate, who did some of the same.
To an American ear, this emphasis on being local began to sound strange. Surely all the candidates must live locally, right? Wrong. In the UK, MPs don’t have to live in their constituencies; the only requirement is that they make clear where they actually do live. Parties routinely “parachute in” candidates from elsewhere—no sense in fighting over the seat if the incumbent where you live is already a member of your party.
In the US, the constitution says that a senator must inhabit the state s/he represents; while that leaves some leeway (what does it mean to inhabit vs to reside or to live in?), American voters expect candidates to live in their constituencies, and candidates who haven’t lived in their constituencies very long risk being deemed some kind of sly tricksters. Clearly from what I heard Sunday British voters prefer local candidates if they can get them. The Tory who will probably be my next MP tried and failed to win two primaries in farflung areas before his party sent him here; it isn’t comforting to think we were his third choice, that he has no more attachment to us than to the townspeople in Lancashire, more than halfway to Scotland, whom he also tried to represent.
But the next candidate was undoubtedly local, given that he lives in a caravan (US: camper) as close as he can get to Stonehenge. King Arthur didn’t bother with the microphone that the others used. He said the other candidates, having to answer to their parties, were “all as bad as each other”. He would “kick butt, serious butt” in Parliament and faithfully work for what the people of Salisbury wanted. (Later he got a big laugh with “I don’t care what Brussels wants, I don’t care what London wants, I don’t care what Washington wants, I don’t even care what Andover wants”; Andover is 30 miles away, but in a different constituency.) And if you’re wondering about his place in the alphabetical lineup, well, even though his name appears on the ballot simply as King Arthur, the moderator referred to him throughout as Mr Pendragon (which is, after all, his legal name).
Who could follow that kind of butt-kicking performance? Lucky for the LibDems, their candidate, Nick Radford (who is 26 but looks 14), had some panache. Articulate, well-versed on his party’s manifesto (US: a document spelling out his party’s platform) but able to speak beautifully off the cuff, Mr Radford was the only one on the stage who could come close to matching Arthur’s energetic, passionate delivery—a good thing, since he had to follow Arthur’s act all afternoon.
The Green party candidate deserves better, but I can’t tell you what he said. Sandwiched between the enthusiastic LibDem and the brooding BNP candidate, he failed to make an impression. When the BNP candidate stood to speak, there were boos and calls of “Racist scum”—and Americans think the British are reserved! (Arthur stood, too, and turned his back.)
As the afternoon went on we got a good idea of each candidate’s position, most of which we could have understood just by watching their hands. The Conservative clasped his together, holding on tight to the status quo; the next fellow held a Bible and began every answer by rephrasing the question as “What does the Bible say about” that issue? Arthur stood with hands on hips—nobody was getting past him; he would put himself physically on the line as he had put himself in the paths of bulldozers before (no need to ask his position on bypasses). Young Mr Radford held his hands out, curved, palms up—supporting us or giving something to us, either interpretation suited his message. The BNP candidate clutched a copy of his party’s manifesto in a big fist and couldn’t answer any question requiring thought or reaction on the fly; if the manifesto didn’t cover a subject, he simply said so and declined to speak further.
National Health Service funding? No problem for the BNP: stop all foreign aid, spend that money on health care, and kick all non-British NHS workers back to their own countries, which need them. This sparked the only real show of temper; the Conservative said hotly that 37% of NHS workers come from other countries and we can’t get by without them. The Bible guy said if we return to a moral foundation based on the Bible we’ll all be healthier and won’t need so many NHS workers. Same thing works for the economy, too: if we “return to the God of the Bible” prosperity will apparently follow.
Environmental destruction in Salisbury? The Green party candidate rose to the occasion, the Bible guy said he didn’t understand the question, and BNP guy said environmental destruction is caused by new housing required for immigrants. (He wants to stop all immigration, period, which of course would include people like me.)
I liked Arthur’s answer on how to treat asylum seekers; when we speak English, he said, we’re speaking the language of the Angles plus that of the Saxons and the Jutes with some Norman French thrown in; we’ve always welcomed those who come and we still should. (On reflection, I see that omits the fact that many of those peoples came here as conquerors or at least pushed out the earlier inhabitants, but let’s don’t get picky.) The Green guy said we must plan for millions more refugees created by global warming, the BNP said send ’em home, the Conservative’s opinion wasn’t much different, and the Bible guy quoted (from the second book of Chronicles) God’s instructions to the Israelites on welcoming strangers.
A timekeeper sitting in the centre aisle held up one arm as a warning and two arms when time was up, and the questions kept coming—Trident? Bike lanes? Gaza? Moral decline?
The BNP guy and the Bible guy said they don’t believe in global warming, the Conservative said there’s nothing we can do about it since China’s polluting away, and Arthur said we should lead by example and do what we can anyway. The LibDem guy turns out to run a solar and renewable energy company and the UKIP lady said with a shrug that she believes in global warming but her party doesn’t so “what the hell can I do?” showing that Arthur’s not the only one who can swear in church. The Green guy came into his own but lost us in a morass of statistics.
Abortion? You can guess who said “the blood of innocent babies is on this country as a curse”. Arthur’s one-word answer, shouted into the microphone, practically exploded the circuitry of the sound system: “Freedom!”
The BNP characterized the EU as “an institution dedicated to ending British sovereignty and destroying our nation and national identity”. He called one questioner a liar and the moderator stepped in to ask for more respect; he still said she was lying. When he said the youth of today have it too easy, the jeers of the audience made him give up and sit down.
Asked how he’d protect Christian minorities such as Catholics, the Bible guy said he wouldn’t, because God says Christians should be persecuted. You have to wonder what he’d do if he succeeded in converting all the world to his religion and there was nobody left to persecute him, but I guess he doesn’t have to worry about that.
Eventually, each candidate summed up. The Conservative said we need change, and the Bible guy said he wasn’t asking us to vote for him: he was asking us to ask God to tell us how to vote. The LibDem reminded us that the role of the state is to ensure a fairer society, and told us that we, the voters, are the kingmakers in this country. King Arthur, following him for a change (summations went from last to first), said that as long as you were making somebody a king, you might as well start with him and the crowd, as it had all afternoon, loved his contributions.
I’d say that the LibDem probably came out on top in the debate, although as one of King Arthur’s supporters said, Arthur won the crowd’s respect, if not its votes. At one point during applause for Arthur, I asked my husband why he was grinning, and he said “Because I agree with him”. Halfway through, the LibDem opened his thoughts on Gaza with “It’s nice to be able to disagree with King Arthur for a change”. Arthur’s opinions are not out on the wacko edge, it’s just that Arthur doesn’t do boring. His methods and his vocabulary aren’t what the electorate is used to, but as he said, he gets things moving. He pointed to the changes he’s forced in government policy by peaceful protest and by taking Her Majesty’s Government to court in Europe and left us with this thought: “That’s what I’ve done from outside the system. Think what I could do from inside!”