In Britain, the leader of the government is not elected by a national vote. Rather, the prime minister is the head of the dominant party caucus in the parliament.
It is probably a good thing that the United States decided against going with a parliamentary system, as the boss of the largest partisan caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives is a fellow named Tom DeLay.
But the parliamentary system does force British leaders to campaign on a more human scale — and to face more poignant and powerful questions.
To retain his post as prime minister, Tony Blair must lead his Labour Party to a national win Thursday. But he also must be reelected by the voters of his parliamentary riding — the equivalent of a congressional district — in the north of England.
In all likelihood, Blair will prevail. His riding, Sedgefield, has for generations sent Labour Party members to parliament.
But he faces a tougher fight than ever before because of his decision to march British troops into George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Blair’s most aggressive challenger in Sedgefield is a man whose passionate opposition to the Iraq war is rooted in personal experience.
Reg Keys, a retired ambulance driver who is running as an independent candidate against Blair, is distributing a simple letter to voters in the Sedgefield riding. It reads:
“Dear Friends. You may ask why I have decided to stand against the Prime Minister. I am not a politician. I am an ordinary family man.
“The last time I saw my son, Tom, was at a railway station when he marched off down the platform with his head held high, proud to do his duty for his country. He believed what he was told. But the Prime Minister misled the country, and Tom and eighty four other soldiers who had their oath of allegiance betrayed came home in coffins – having died for a lie.
“It is time to bring the accountability back in to politics. People in this constituency need an MP they can trust to speak and act honestly on their behalf.
“If you would like a poster, are willing to deliver leaflets or help the campaign in any other way or just want to tell me what you think, please do contact me at the address below
“Yours sincerely, Reg Keys”
The campaign that Keys has waged to hold Blair accountable has drawn national attention and support. The Sedgefield vote has become a referendum on the war, and on the question of whether those who lie in order to launch an invasion ought to be rewarded with another term in office. That is the choice that Americans should have been presented in 2004, but they were denied it by the miserably inept campaign of John Kerry and by a media that has generally shies away from applying standards of “truth” and “accountability” to our politicians.
Britain is seeing a more honorable campaign, particularly in Sedgefield.
Among those who traveled to Sedgefield to campaign for Reg Keys was the novelist Frederick Forsyth, the author of The Odessa File and The Dogs of War.
“So why again did we invade Iraq?” asked Forsyth, in a speech delivered before the memorial to local men who dies in World War I and World War II. “The answer was because one man — and it was at the time one man, the sitting MP for this constituency — decided, in secret conclave with the American President, that the American president intended to invade and would not be persuaded from that ambition, and that he, the British premier, would send British troops in to assist the Americans, come what may.”
Unfortunately, explained Forsyth, there was no justification for war. So, the author said of Blair, “He made it up… And that is why Tom Keys had to die. He did not — I’m sorry, I’m sorry for his father — he did not die because his country was genuinely under threat. He died so that a man could have a standing ovation in Washington…”
Then, with a passion rarely seen or heard in American politics, Forsyth declared, “I ask you: think of Tom Keys in his grave. I ask you to think what he would say. What he would say I think is clear: ‘Give your votes to my Dad. Send my Dad down to the palace by the Thames.’ I concur with that. If you send him there he will represent you well, and more, he will give you your honour back.”
Words such as “honor” are rarely heard in America politics these days. Perhaps that is why it is so refreshing to catch their echo from across the sea.
John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.” Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com