Next Tuesday the eyes of the world turn to Washington and the inauguration of the forty fourth President of the United States, Barrack Obama.
Not for half a century, if ever, has the advent of a new administration been anticipated with such hope by the whole world, or been shadowed by such fears of what may happen were glowing promise to translate itself into dull disillusion.
Viewed from this side of the Atlantic the story of Obama’s march to the White House, from the chilly New Hampshire primaries to the victory rally in Chicago last November is both improbable and inspiring.
Improbable, that is, to someone raised in a political tradition that seems colourless by comparison. British elections tend to be low key affairs, marked by a few weeks of lacklustre campaigning and a brief speech on the doorstep of Downing Street delivered by the new incumbent.
There is no grand inauguration ceremony with its balls and display of military might, not, perhaps a bad thing since the British feel uncomfortable with the idea of show business encroaching on the staid world of Westminster. Unfortunately our political life lacks the sense of its major players having worked to earn their place in the spotlight in the way the participants in the US primaries did.
Instead we have a political elite that progresses from school, usually a public school by the way, to university and then a job as a researcher to an MP before standing as a candidate and, hopefully getting elected. Attending the Labour conference a couple of years ago I found myself in a room full of young prospective parliamentary candidates and while I couldn’t help but admire their intellect and articulacy I was alarmed by their lack of knowledge about life as lived by the ‘hard working families’ they will spend much of their political career talking about.
In a week when we were informed that social mobility in the UK has virtually stalled the background from which the people who aspire to make our laws rose is more important than ever. There have been grand promises, delivered in a white paper on social inclusion, that the government will ‘force’ top universities and the profession to take more entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds, the intentions are undoubtedly noble, but the methodology feels a little too like social engineering and class warfare for comfort.
Perhaps a better example to offer to disadvantaged people is that of the American dream that many people claim Barrack Obama finally brought to fulfilment at the ballot box, an example in which hard work generates high rewards and the only positive discrimination on offer is the sort that discriminates between the gold of talent and the base metal of ordinary capacities.
Equally inspiring to a European observer was the enthusiasm the American people, from the activists hammering the phones during the primaries to the lines of citizens waiting in the pouring rain of baking heat to cast their vote on Election Day. To my shame I cannot recall a single occasion when I had to queue up to cast my vote in either a general or local election, in fact most elections in the UK seem to pass by without being noticed by the majority of the adult population.
I have always believed that the greatest gift of democracy is the freedom of citizens not to take an interest in politics, and for that reason I have always opposed making voting compulsory, but something must be done to educate people that casting their vote is the responsibility that earns them the rights they too often take for granted.
Standing in a bookshop the other day I overheard a conversation between two young women one of whom was holding a copy of The Audacity of Hope and saying to her friend ‘Isn’t he just the coolest President?’ I cannot imagine a book by Gordon Brown or David Cameron provoking a similar response; in fact I cannot imagine the majority of Britons wanting to read about either man’s vision for our country’s future, Obama’s book, by the way, is high in the best seller’s lists in the UK.
Could the success of a self proclaimed ‘skinny kid with a weird name’ be the catalyst for a new attitude towards engaging with the electorate amongst British politicians? We can only hope that it will.