John Major and his Conservative Party have been in power so long Maggie Thatcher came and went during the period and the opposition Labour Party still didn't get a look-in. That may be changing this spring when, for constitutional reasons, Prime Minister Major is required to call a general election, one that the turf accountants (bookies to you) and most everyone else think Labour is sure to win.
The polling date (probably in May) should be announced pretty soon and then they have only a month to campaign before the vote. There may be a good deal wrong with the British system but at least it's brief.
In leading up to the election, the usual U.S. pundits have been assessing the situation, quite notably Hugo Young in The New Yorker with his piece on Mr. Major, "The Last Tory." But my favorite curtain-raiser on the coming British election so far comes from Warren Hoge in The New York Times.
Mr. Hoge, who used to be a senior editor of the Times in New York but has plenty of foreign correspondent experience (years and years in Latin America before this European assignment), zeroed in on one of the Conservative Party's more exotic parliamentary candidates, Alan Clark.
Mr. Clark, Hoge writes, "had an affair with the wife of a judge and then seduced her two daughters. He also gave drunken speeches in the House of Commons, expressed unabashed delight in having an inherited fortune and living in a 50-room 17th-century castle and helped cover up British machine tool exporters' contributions to Saddam Hussein's war machine. Then he proudly published a diary confessing it all and showering insults on his constituents and colleagues."
Said the prime minister of this splendid candidate, "Alan Clark is an original and everyone in the House of Commons knows he's an original. He'll bring a dash of color."
Compared to Mr. Clark, the wicked goings-on down there in Arkansas over which everyone is so embarrassed seem pretty tame stuff indeed.
Yet here is the Conservative Party awarding him with a candidacy in Kensington and Chelsea, said to be the safest seat the party has, "home to some of the plummiest accents in London," according to Hoge.
And who previously held this Tory seat? Sir Nicholas Scott, "a snowy-haired aristocrat who was arrested for drunken driving last summer and then in October was found lying face down in a gutter at a Tory conference in Bournemouth, incoherently drunk."
When it was decided poor Sir Nick ought perhaps be retired (giving him more time at the pubs), a meeting was held in the district where a few malcontents brought up comments by Mr. Clark about his previous seat, in Plymouth, and the people he'd represented there. They were, Clark said (and here he was speaking of people who voted for him!), "petty, malign, clumsily conspiratorial." And he then called his fellow Tory, the chancellor of the Exchequer, "that podgy life insurance risk."
Said one voter of these two splendid fellows chosen to represent the district in the House, "With Nick it was the bottle, with Alan it is women."
When Clark was in Maggie Thatcher's cabinet, he once remarked that although he found the prime minister "attractive," he "didn't want to jump her." Of the current deputy prime minister, a man who earned rather than inherited his dough, Clark called him the sort "who buys his own furniture." And said what he held most against the fellow was this: "He's not classy, which doesn't worry me in the slightest. But worse, he doesn't aspire to be classy."
What does Mrs. Clark, the candidate's loving wife, who was 16 when she married the then-30-year-old Clark, think of his capering? Warren Hoge reports Jane Clark "has weathered the years of philandering with cheerful stoicism and disdain for the other women in his life." For example, when the story of the judge's wife and her two daughters came out in the press, Mrs. Clark sniffed, "If you bed people of belowstairs classes, they go to the papers, don't they?"
I lived in England for a couple of years, covered one general election (Macmillan and the Tories won), and can't wait for this one. And the continuing adventures of Candidate Clark and more dispatches from the great Warren Hoge.