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June 02, 2011 10:00 AM Why British Politics Just Work Better

By Keith Humphreys

David Brooks probably didn’t expect the reaction he got when he asserted that British political culture was currently superior to the stateside version which he covers in Washington. Daniel Knowles of the Daily Telegraph slapped Brooks down hard, both for suspect historical analysis (e.g., forgetting the impact of The Great War) and for lionizing the intertwined public school background of the political leadership class.

Brooks particularly ticked Knowles off by saying: “Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.” Glenn Greenwald also was infuriated by this passage and twists the sword with relish accusing Brooks of being an anti-democratic elitist who wants all decisions made by a small club of insiders of which he is a part.

Yet, speaking as someone who does extensive policy advising in Westminster and in Washington, Brooks’ basic point is correct: British politics is simply working better, for several reasons. First (as Brooks noted), the fundamental ideological differences between the parties is smaller than in the U.S. No one for example believes that a massive tax cut will solve Britain’s public debt challenges. Rather, the argument is about how much spending must go down and how much taxes must go up. Second, perhaps because British people project their need for celebrities onto the Royal Family, British politics isn’t as celebritized as ours: A lisping, adenoidal bloke with a hairdo that would warrant a refund at Supercuts can still lead one of the major parties and substantive people who don’t come across smoothly on camera can still be elected. This expands the pool of political talent beyond those with made-for-TV faces and smooth but shallow interpersonal styles. And third, the public school thing isn’t all bad. As I said from the day the government was formed, I had hoped David Davies would get a post because he is the one prominent Tory who grew up in poverty and would add a perspective the Etonians don’t have. Insular wealth and privilege can produce blind spots, and that part of the old school tie bit can be problematic. But on the other hand, the fact that so many of the leadership class “knew each other at school” means, well, they actually know each other as people in a way that members of Congress no longer do, and that makes it harder for them to demonize each other publicly or even in their own imagination.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.