Most of them are even more bored by the election than you are.
Show Hide image

What do other countries think about the general election?

What do other countries make of Britain's elections? They're even less interested than you are. 

Last week, I found myself chairing a discussion on whether or not the British election mattered, but with a difference: it was a panel made up entirely of foreigners,=,

You know those interventions where someone's friends and family come and will explain how much they care about them? This was basically the exact opposite.

With less than two weeks to polling day, it's striking how little of the election debate within Britain has focused on the outside world. Even on Europe, the focus has been more on Ukip itself than the broader issues.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, has largely ignored the vote. If anything, it has garnered less attention than last year's Scottish independence vote.

That might change, of course, but the bottom line seems to be that this particular election -- even with #kitchengate, #milifandom, the #Cameronettes and Farage -- is just not globally interesting.

Particularly after the 2013 vote not to intervene militarily in Syria, Britain is just seen less relevant and less bothered.

Each of the panellists on Wednesday had their own different reasons for explaining why it didn't matter.

First up was Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a former Indian security official. He had just returned from Washington DC and a string of meetings at the State Department, Pentagon and elsewhere.

Had anyone asked him about the UK election there? No.

Did India care either? Not really, he said. India's government was "ruthlessly pragmatic" in its relationships and Britain was no longer seen as a major strategic partner.

Next up was Marina Prentoulis, lecturer at the University of East Anglia and London spokeswoman for the Greek ruling party Syriza. The Greeks didn't really care either, she said. Britain was seen outside the eurozone decision-making structures. And Ed Milliband was seen too soft for a Labour victory to be really seen part of a wider backlash against austerity.

American political consultant Jennifer Brindisi gave a somewhat more nuanced answer. No, she said, most Americans did not care -- they were already too focused on next year's presidential vote and none of the British contenders had sufficient "rockstar" appeal (although it might have been different if David Milliband or Boris Johnson were on the ticket).

Within the business community, however, had noticed. The Conservative EU referendum and Labour tax plans both worried them. On balance, she said, they preferred the idea of the Tories.

On national security, Washington has expressed concern at UK defence spending dropping below two percent of GDP. And there's at least some interest in whether the UK keeps the Trident nuclear deterrent or not.

Finally, US State Department media specialist Barakat Jassem summed up the mood in the Middle East. They really didn't care either, he said.

That didn't mean there weren't some interesting broader lessons, the panel concluded. Indeed, British Nigerian writer Emmanuel Akinwotu said he thought this year’s election was amongst the most interesting in recent years, even if not as significant as 1997 or maybe even 2010.

The increased support for unorthodox parties such as UKIP, the overall fatigue with mainstream politics, the growing polarisation and dispute between those who want greater regulation and tax and those who oppose it all have wider relevance.

The problem with mainstream politics in Britain, Greece's Prentoulis said, was that they were striving for a centre ground that no longer existed.

For what it's worth, I'm with Emmanuel -- this is an interesting election. And many of the issues Britain is battling with, not least the growing divide between the political and commercial centre of London and the rest of the country, do have much wider relevance.

Britain may be a much reduced force on the world stage but ironically its capital city is at its most powerful in decades, the centre of a globalised trading system that it ultimately largely created.

It also faces some interesting choices -- on Europe, obviously, even if the polls suggest the UK will stay. The return of an assertive Russia also raises some pressing defence questions, not least altering the debate on Trident.

But whatever Britain chooses, the rest of the world will continue largely regardless.

In Whitehall and to a lesser extent in Washington, officials and pundits now talk of a Britain that is "absent from the world". Frankly, it worries and upsets them.

But as one British official put it, maybe that's just what the electorate wants. No one is hugely interested in domestic Dutch or Norwegian politics either and they are perfectly pleasant places to live.

As Iraqi born Jassem said, there's a lot to be said for living in a non-newsworthy country. It's not surprising that the prime concern for most Britons are domestic.

But a Britain that doesn’t want to be noticed is a very different kind of Britain.

The discussion took place at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century, whose website is here.

 

Peter Apps is a Reuters correspondent currently on sabbatical as the safety director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.