If You Ask Me June 2013

Dragon in Shallow Waters?

Look at London for lessons in politics

What—if anything—are we to make of the recent upset in the UK’s local elections in which the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won almost 25% of the votes?

Nigel Farage, the party’s leader and an individual used to being disparaged by the mainstream, gloated that a major corner had been turned in British politics. But he would be wise to remember that even the brightest moon shines only with borrowed light.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, which appeared to be the election’s biggest loser, might want to meditate on the wisdom of the Chinese philosophy that shrimps can make fools of dragons in shallow waters.

As so often happens, media coverage in the UK has been split in great part between those who share the UKIP’s key aims (for example, smaller government, a withdrawal from Europe and—most controversially—a new approach to immigration) and those who call for a sense of perspective.

It is not unusual in mid-term elections (as these were and at the local level, too) for there to be a protest vote over the status quo; people are disgruntled.

Currently, there is great dissatisfaction with the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. There is a strong feeling that the Labour opposition is impotent—its leader Mr. Bean-with-a-hard-on intent on turning left when all indications are that the majority of the country’s voters want to go right.

Within the Conservative party itself, there are growing voices for Cameron to step down ahead of the next general election, scheduled for 2015.

This is all very reminiscent of the situation in the early 1970s, when the party began to lose patience with the then-leader, Sir Edward Heath KG MBE.

Heath was seen as inflexible, intolerant, rude and out of touch. True, the country was in a much worse state than now. However, many of the sentiments expressed then have long echoes.

Opinion polls of the day suggested people wanted to vote against more of the same, rather than for something new—a genuine dilemma for the political planners and manifesto writers.

It should be remembered, too, that when it came to the point where Heath was forced to accept a challenge to his leadership, those casting their ballots largely schemed to make sure he was not re-elected, rather than voting for someone in whom they truly believed. Ultimately, this benefitted Margaret Thatcher, much to the shock of the establishment of the time.

While the injured parties in the recent local elections are right to lick their wounds and examine their navels, they can take some comfort in the fact that the 2015 general election is highly unlikely to see a UKIP majority in parliament.

And what of the lessons—if any—for Japan? It is always difficult, if not impossible, to draw a clear parallel; our electoral systems are different, while our populations are differently educated and inclined in the ways of politics.

Although we may share similar economic issues, the geopolitical ones are very different indeed.

While The City will no doubt look with interest at the evolution of Abenomics, Westminster will be wondering what to make of the increasingly hawkish opinions expressed by Japan’s current leaders: the Inoses, the Hashimotos and—yes—Abe himself.

There was a time when Japanese politicians felt that they could make even the most outrageous comments and, as long as they did so in Japanese, no one outside Japan would notice. Of course, that was never entirely true. These days, it is patently even less the case.

If Abenomics is to restore Japan’s place in the global economy, the time has come for a more responsible political place on the global stage. A serious look at what is happening in the UK right now would surely provide valuable lessons.