British and American Elections: A Comparative Look

In June 1996, the funding of British politics came to front page prominence with a controversy over the funding of political opposition to greater integration within the European Union. This opposition, organized by Bill Cash, a backbench (i.e., non-office-holding) Tory MP, was offered funds by Sir James Goldsmith, a very wealthy Anglo-French entrepreneur mostly resident outside Britain. This at once created controversy, because Goldsmith, anti-big government, pro-protectionism, and very opposed to European integration, had recently launched a Referendum Party, which insists on a referendum on the issue of integration. As Goldsmith had announced that his candidates would fight all MPs who were unwilling to support such a referendum. Cash was therefore bitterly criticized within the Tory Party for taking money from a politician opposed to many Tories. The controversy led him to decline the donation, whereupon it was replaced by Mrs. Thatcher, from the funds of the Thatcher Foundation, a donation that created fresh controversy.

The entire episode revealed aspects of the Americanization of British politics. Goldsmith is a Perot figure, willing to use his great wealth to try to break the mold of two-party politics. The referendum also indicates the rise of single-issue politics, which, while not unknown in British politics, has tended to be subsumed by the coalition nature of British political parties.

Yet, despite these similarities,...

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