Two days after Britain’s inconclusive election, a thousand or so protesters dressed in suffrage purple have gathered outside the building in London where Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is meeting with his MPs to discuss his response to the blandishments of the two major parties, both wooing him to support their claim to power. They’re chanting “Fair Votes Now,” “My Vote Counts,” “You Serve Us,” and “We Want Nick” to stiffen his spine against any deal he might make that doesn’t guarantee electoral reform. I’m watching it on TV as I write, and Clegg has just come out to address the crowd. He’s saying he genuinely believes it is in the national interest to use this opportunity to usher in a new politics, thanking them for their campaign, urging them to take it to every street and every town in Britain. They are cheering wildly. Cleggmania may have fizzled in the voting booth, but it seems to have sparked a different kind of flame. It looks like Britain now has a democracy movement.
This is a very British protest, a million miles from the demonstrations in Greece last week, in which three bank workers died when a petrol bomb was thrown into their building. But they’re connected. In Greece, a democratically elected socialist government has been forced by the EU and the IMF to impose intolerable austerity measures because “the markets” have speculated wildly on its debt. In Britain, “the markets” are putting pressure on the politicians to reach a fast resolution to the uncertainty the election has produced—which means, as the Financial Times opines, “a deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.” On Thursday night, the BBC paused at regular intervals in its election coverage to take sterling’s temperature. It was as if, as Princess Diana once said, there were three parties to this marriage: the voters, the candidates, and "the markets," a "jittery" beast that must be constantly "reassured" lest it should turn on us and tear us all to shreds. “The markets,” says BBC business correspondent Robert Peston, want “a stable government perceived to be tackling the public-sector deficit in a serious, substantial way”—code for Cameron in Downing Street with a solid majority, however he can cobble it together. The media—and David Cameron—have repeatedly threatened that Britain might “turn into Greece.”
Of course, there’s nothing new about this kind of pressure—except, perhaps, how openly it is now brought to bear. Hanging over this weekend’s negotiations in London is the memory of the 1970s, where a series of hung parliaments and minority governments led to a sterling crisis and the ignominious arrival of the IMF—which led to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. More power to the purple people gathered now in London. They may find that they’ve taken on more than they bargained for.