Political Manners

Howard Croft

During my time living and working in the United States most of my American friends and colleagues were interested in, and keen to talk about politics; not only about their domestic politics, but also British politics. I learnt a lot, and I hope they did too. One characteristic of these conversations was that we did not criticise each others’ systems or political leaders. You don’t dine in a friend’s home and while you are there pass comments about his wife’s shortcomings.

I was fortunate that while I was in America to witness, at close quarters so to speak, a Presidential election in which George W. Bush was running for a second term. Of course, not being a US citizen I didn’t have a vote; I did have views, but I kept them to myself. As at a personal level, so at a national level it is regarded as extremely bad form for political leaders to be seen actively supporting candidates for office in other countries, though of course it is often known where their sympathies lie. Margaret Thatcher’s high regard for Ronald Reagan was plain enough, and was it equally plainly reciprocated, going way beyond any feelings about the “Special Relationship”. But if either had behaved or spoken in a way that might have been interpreted as an attempt to influence the outcome of an election across the Atlantic there would have been a diplomatic “incident” (and it would probably have backfired).

This convention, not to meddle in the democratic processes of other countries, is of course a matter of good manners, but it is also in some countries a matter of law. It is, for example, illegal in the UK, as in the US, for political parties to accept donations from foreign sources. During the Bush/Kerry election I was approached a number of times to contribute a few dollars to this campaign or that and I pointed out that I was not a citizen the party workers concerned immediately shied away. They had obviously been well-schooled in electoral law. Their aversion to me could not have been more marked had I confessed to being a convicted sex offender and quite right too.

Now, something unusual is happening in Europe. In a matter of days, President Sarkosy of France faces an election for what he hopes will be a further presidential term. Angela Merkel, Germany’s head of state, has openly declared her support for his candidacy and, even more extraordinary, campaigned for him on French soil. In a remarkable exercise in casuistry she has justified this interference in the French democratic process on the grounds that she will be acting not in her capacity as Chancellor of Germany, but as the leader of her political party, which has fraternal links with Sarkosy’s own party.

How this will play out remains to be seen. Will it backfire? Will it spread? My guess is that it will end in tears. Can you imagine the reaction if Merkel invited herself along to go on the stump in the run-up to the US election in November?