On Thursday, voters in the United Kingdom will go to the polls for the country’s third general election in just more than four years. In many respects, the last election, held in June 2017, begat this plebiscite; with the Conservative government lacking a majority, and the House of Commons deadlocked over whether and how to approve a Brexit withdrawal agreement with the European Union, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt he had no other option but to “go to the country” in an attempt to win a working majority in Parliament.
As to Johnson, the current American president earlier this year dubbed him “Britain Trump,” a term the premier has shied from. Trump’s unpopularity in Great Britain meant Johnson went to great lengths to avoid public interactions with the president during last week’s NATO summit in London, to prevent a close association with Trump from costing him votes this Thursday.
That said, Johnson and Trump share many common personality traits. In addition to famous (or infamous) coiffures, Johnson has long exhibited Trump’s flair for showmanship and bravado. While serving as London Mayor during the 2012 Olympics, his infamous mishap on a high-wire act provided the highlight—both literally and figuratively—of his political career prior to his ascension to the premiership:
Even prior to Trump’s campaign for the presidency, British politics has not lacked for celebrity, or a flair for the dramatic and ostentatious. The requirements to stand for Parliament are relatively sparse: Candidates need the signatures of 10 voters in the constituency in which they wish to stand, along with a deposit of £500, or about $650 at current exchange rates. (Candidates receive their deposit back if they poll over 5 percent of the vote; whilst major parties suffer embarrassment if they lose a deposit in a constituency, minor parties do so all the time.)
Because inflation has eroded the value of the monetary barrier to entry for candidates—at the end of World War I, deposits once cost the equivalent of many thousands of pounds—and because candidates often are not resident in the constituency they are elected to represent, minor candidates and parties flourish in British elections in a way that they do not in the United States. With low barriers to ballot access, and a healthy tradition of “parachuting” into particular constituencies, British politics has regularly seen high-profile, celebrity, and offbeat candidates in parliamentary elections. Here are just a few examples.
A former journalist, Bell first stood for Parliament at the 1997 general election that brought Tony Blair to power. After 35 years working for the BBC as a foreign correspondent, he resigned from journalism to run in a safe Conservative seat against Neil Hamilton. With Hamilton embroiled in “sleaze” allegations—the then-owner of Harrod’s, Mohamed Al-Fayed, said he had paid Hamilton and another MP thousands of pounds to table parliamentary questions on his behalf—the “cash-for-questions” affair became Hamilton’s undoing.
Bell overturned one of the largest Conservative majorities to capture a seat in Parliament, becoming the first independent elected since 1951. While the “man in the white suit” only served one term—he had promised not to stand again—he proved the power of both celebrity status and an anti-sleaze campaign in the face of corruption.
The father of Tom Keys, a soldier killed during the Iraq War, Keys stood against Blair in the then-prime minister’s Sedgefield constituency at the 2005 general election. Running as an independent candidate, he garnered just over 10 percent of the vote (thus regaining his deposit).
While Keys did not win his election, it says something about British democracy that he ran in a direct campaign to defeat the sitting prime minister, something that an American in the same circumstances—Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a deceased Iraq veteran who protested against George Bush, comes to mind—would have very little chance of doing. (Sheehan eventually ran for Congress against Nancy Pelosi, because the House speaker would not impeach George W. Bush over the Iraq War.)
Moreover, tradition holds that all candidates for Parliament have an opportunity to make a speech on election night after the returning officer releases that constituency’s results, starting with the victor. Keys used his speech to excoriate Blair for the Iraq War—as Blair stood mere feet behind him. Regardless of what one thinks of Blair or the Iraq War, the incident represented a very real example of democracy holding politicians to account.
Long on the far left of the Labour Party, Galloway took a leap from elected office to become something approaching a celebrity. Expelled from Labour for his comments over the Iraq War in 2003—he had called for Arabs to fight British troops—Galloway ran as a member of the Respect Party in the 2005 election, defeating a sitting Labour MP in an East London constituency with a large Muslim population.
While serving as an MP, Galloway in 2006 agreed to participate in a series of “Celebrity Big Brother.” The show excised most of his political comments before the episodes aired, but did air an infamous segment in which Galloway attempted to impersonate a cat. His incendiary left-wing rhetoric, coupled with his history of stunts like the “Celebrity Big Brother” appearance, have made Galloway a presence in British politics, if one routinely subject to condemnation for his remarks.
Alan ‘Howling Laud’ Hope
Hope serves as the official head of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. (Yes, such a thing exists in Great Britain—it has fielded candidates in UK elections since 1983.) The party has offered British electors an offbeat, protest vote, often in by-elections following an MP’s resignation or death, or in “safe seats,” where the incumbent stands little chance of defeat. The party receives some modest election coverage from the British press, as when the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed Hope during the 2017 election about his party’s “Manic-festo” (a pun on a traditional party’s manifesto, or agenda for government).
In 2010, Hope stood against David Cameron, who would become prime minister following the election, coming in sixth in the Witney constituency with 234 votes. At that time, he received his 15 minutes of fame, because all candidates appear on-stage when a constituency’s returning officer announces the night’s results—a delightfully democratic quirk of British politics.
Hope’s colorful presence next to Cameron on the night of the latter’s election drew no small amount of comment from American viewers, who might have wondered why a man resembling Boss Hogg from “The Dukes of Hazzard” was standing next to Britain’s next prime minister.
A candidate by this name has run in three separate elections—against then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her Finchley constituency in 1987, against then-PM John Major in his Huntingdon constituency in 1992, and against then-PM Theresa May in her Maidenhead constituency at the 2017 general election. Asked in 2017 whether the same Lord Buckethead had run in each election, the candidate responded, “I am Buckethead. We are Buckethead. We are Legion. Does that answer your question?”
Amazing as it sounds, not one but two Lord Bucketheads (or is that Lord Buckets-head?) are standing against Johnson this week in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency. Due to a lingering copyright dispute, one has changed his (its?) name to Count Binface, whilst the other represents the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.
From the serious to the sublime, British politics has traditionally offered all manner of candidates, celebrities, and offbeat personalities. Therefore, to the extent that the current president has brought a celebrity culture to American politics, in many respects it merely represents a strand running through UK elections for quite some time.