London — Britain’s local elections last week did not prove much one way or the other, except, it seems, that traditional party loyalties are frayed. Voters tended to remove from power the party that had enjoyed it. What this means at the national level nobody really knows, and inventive as the British press is, it was hard put to find much to write about. It was saved in part, though, by the race for mayor in Hartlepool, a northeast seaport city. When one Stuart Drummond had announced his candidacy there, the on-line bookies put him at 100 to 1, but he campaigned on a promise of free bananas for schoolchildren while he wore a monkey suit, and he won.
Meanwhile attention was also paid to the 68 candidates from the British National Party, or BNP. It may be the successor to Sir Oswald Mosley’s old 1930s Fascists, or it may be the British equivalent of France’s National Front. On the other hand, it may only be a collection of boyos who want to whoop it up. On the eve of the elections, however, the tabloid Daily Express ran pictures of the BNP candidates, along with a big front-page headline, “Vote These Nazis Out.” But the Express may not be a reliable guide, even if it does call itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Just after the elections, in another front-page story, it reported on a connection between Osama bin Laden and Nazis.
Of the 68 BNP candidates — in all there were 6,000 candidates for local office across Britain — only three won, in the northwest city of Burnley, where they were elected to the council. The political columnist for the Evening Standard said their victories came about because “the BNP has exploited the seeming collapse of any resolve on the part of authority to uphold law and order,” and it may be he was right. Crime statistics are rising all over Britain. There are fears, especially, about random violence.
Indeed with that in mind, some 6,000 police officers were assigned to watch over London’s traditional May Day marches and demonstrations. There were almost as many police officers, in fact, as there were marchers and demonstrators. Consequently other than some bottle-throwing and window-breaking there was little trouble, and the police congratulated themselves on a job well done.
The next day, however, 47 police officers were injured when hundreds of football hooligans went on a rampage after their team, Milwall, lost to Birmingham and failed to make the league’s play-off final. It was, Scotland Yard’s deputy commissioner said, “the most serious street football violence ever seen in London.”
No doubt it was. Cars were torched, and store fronts destroyed amidst the general mayhem. But remember now there will always be an England, and that old sentiments abide. People go dotty over animals, and the press paid more attention to injured police horses than it did to the injured officers. “Horses Injured in Milwall Mob’s Attack,” the Daily Telegraph said, for example, in a horrified front-page headline.
In particular, the press, the sober Financial Times excepted, was interested in a horse called Alamein. Depending on which story you read, Alamein suffered a severed leg artery when it crashed into a car after being frightened by an incendiary flare, or crashed into a car after it was frightened by a police officer who fell from another horse, or crashed into a car after it was frightened by surging hooligans. All the papers assured their presumably worried readers, however, that Alamein would recover nicely, although he would be out of action for several weeks.
The coverage, I thought, was consistent with today’s Britain. The British are well meaning and sentimental, but they also seem a bit rudderless. Tony Blair is a cipher, and Mrs. Thatcher is not there to straighten things out. The British know they have a problem with crime and violence, for instance, but they are unsure what they should do about them, and in their vexation they vote for a man in a monkey suit or three boyos who may or may not be Nazis.
But clotted cream still goes well with scones and strawberry jam, and a popular Queen Elizabeth is beginning her Golden Jubille year, and there is a wonderful D’Oyly Carte production of Yeoman of the Guard at the old Savoy Theater. So perhaps there will always be an England, after all.