The Sedgefield Moment
Tonight, I watched the British election returns by way of C-SPAN's BBC coverage. Now there's a civilized way to run an election night. Well, except for that silly man who jumps about excitedly with all his computer generated maps and pie charts and the Swing-O-Meter and, most especially, those frightening Video Game Blairs, Howards and Kennedys. I'm sure I will have nightmares about those.
As people who pay attention to these things will know, in British elections the votes are counted by hand, in place, and at the end of the count in each constituency all the candidates file up on stage and the results are read out in front of God & Country. Not much chance for fraud there, which is reason enough for an American to admire the British system. (I understand there were some unfortunate questions regarding votes passing through the Royal Post in recent times. We will draw a veil over this anomaly.)
Tony Blair's constituency is Sedgefield, wherever that is, and being the Prime Minister and all, he drew opposition candidates like flies. I believe there were 15 people running against him. He won handily however, by something over 23,000 votes which was, I dunno, 15,000 or more votes better than his closest competitor.
After the results for Sedgefield were announced, Blair stepped forward and gave his speech. The BBC cut away for a bit for some entertaining but generally useless analytical blab, then they cut back to the stage at Sedgefield. Reg Keys was speaking.
I don't know whether it was by custom, courtesy, or law, but Blair was still standing at the back of the stage along with the other candidates, listening intently to Keys who was talking about how much his family had helped him in this very difficult campaign. He mentioned his son who had been killed. And then he said something along the lines of:
"If this war had been sanctioned by international law, I would have grieved for my son, but I would not have campaigned. If weapons of mass destruction had been found, I would have grieved for my son, but I would not have campaigned... "
He criticized the Prime Minister for not apologizing. He spoke about the Prime Minister not attending any funerals for soldiers who had died in Iraq. He went on in more or less that same vein for a while.
And here's the thing... Blair was standing there, not ten feet behind this man -- this man who had lost his boy in a war that Blair had declared necessary even though it clearly wasn't. He listened to the man. He had to listen to the man. His expression was grim, but not, I think, defiant or belligerent. I tell you... I may not be any sort of judge of this sort of thing, but I tell you I think Blair wasn't just listening to this man, he was hearing him as well. I'm sure he feels he could not have done things any differently, but I'm also sure he felt pain for the loss of the Keys family. You could see it in his face. Or, maybe not. In fact, it doesn't really concern me what Blair was feeling. That's between Blair and his conscience and history.
What does concern me, however, is that the leader of my country, the most powerful country in the history of the planet, would never have allowed himself to be in that position.
I very much got the feeling that one of the main reasons Reg Keys campaigned for Blair's seat in Parliament was because he knew that on election night, he would be on that stage with Blair. Not ten feet from him. And that he would finally get to say his piece to the man. "My son died in an illegal war that you started."
It's a moment of profound moral consequence, one of the governed standing up in front of God & Country & the BBC, telling the man who governs him, "you killed my son in a war you had no right to start", and the man who governs him having to listen.
And here in my country, a moment of such profound moral consequence could never happen. The president of my country doesn't have the guts for it. The president of my country -- the prime mover in that illegal war -- is hermetically sealed off from such moments.
Whatever else you want to say about Blair, whatever else you want to say about how the American and the British systems compare, at least the people of the U.K. get to witness moments of profound human debate like that, between the governing and the governed.
I was moved. And I was filled with envy. And my contempt for Bush's moral cowardice grew more bitter still.