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Covering U.K. elections vs. U.S. ones

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Earlier in the show, we talked about the U.S. election and the upcoming European Union parliamentary elections. We're now going to turn to another election - the British elections happening a little more than a month from now. Conservatives have led the U.K. for more than a decade, but polls show the party has a good chance of being booted from power. There are historically a lot of similarities between British and American politics, but there are also some really big differences. I talked about them with Frank Langfitt, who spent years as NPR's London correspondent and now covers global democracy for the network. In our conversation, Langfitt said one major difference is that campaigning in the U.K. only lasts six weeks.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: And I got to say, as somebody who has covered American elections many years ago and covered seemingly countless U.K. elections, it's nice to have it truncated like that. You can talk about - I mean, they can talk about all kinds of issues in the U.K., and then it's the final six weeks. And also a huge difference is there's nowhere near the money that you have here in the United States. So the kind of coverage that we're doing now five months out, it doesn't happen in the United Kingdom. People focus in in the final six weeks, they - everybody goes to the polls, and then that's that.

DETROW: What are some of the specifics as a reporter that you've seen that are different from a British election compared to an American election in terms of how they campaign, in terms of what campaign events are like, just the tenor and tone of it?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it's much smaller there. I mean, they're on TV. It's a much smaller country, so it's very easy to move about, you know? I mean, I could get on a train, or I could get in my car and cover things in the north of England with no trouble. I could go up to Scotland. So it's a much easier country to cover. I think in terms of other differences, it is nowhere near as polarized as the United States and as vitriolic. And I was there when it was the most chaotic period since the end of the war because of Brexit. And still it didn't have that level of venom that we see in the United States. And the other thing that's interesting, Scott, is the United States has an outsized influence on the U.K. because of history and shared language. So often - you know, Tony Blair is a great example. They've followed some of the formulas that they see in the United States. A very good example would be Tony Blair doing his third way, which was following very much a Clinton...

DETROW: Yeah.

LANGFITT: ...A Bill Clinton kind of model.

DETROW: I mean, even at the height of the Brexit tension - because it was the Brexit referendum - right? - where a member of Parliament was killed.

LANGFITT: That's true. I still don't think it's as vitriolic as what we see here.

DETROW: Interesting.

LANGFITT: There's a really big difference coming back to the United States. I've been gone for many, many years. And in the U.K., it was not that hard to talk politics. I had neighbors who were quite conservative, who were Brexit voters, and we had a variety of thoughts. But you could talk to them about things. And here I come back to the United States. I moved into a new neighborhood, and it is very different. We had a cocktail party where we invited the whole neighborhood. It was OK. And then we realized that actually we're going to have to have discrete parties or discrete groups of people because some people don't want to be at the same party as other people, because the political differences are so profound. Now, you're used to this 'cause you've lived in America. You cover politics. This - I left in 2010. I left in the first Obama administration. That was not the case in the United States.

DETROW: Why do you think that the walls are a little lower in other countries like Britain? Is it that it's multiple parties? Is it that it's not a presidential system? Is it that there's just a lot less money and effort made into making it a divisive scenario?

LANGFITT: One thing is there's a shared sense of reality in the United Kingdom, and there's not a shared sense of facts in this country. So in the U.K., as you remember, I was covering Boris Johnson when he was in deep, deep trouble because his administration had been holding parties during COVID lockdown.

DETROW: Yeah. Lockdowns that were much more severe than American lockdowns.

LANGFITT: Much more severe than the ones that you had in the United States. This infuriated everybody across the board. So even though you have a partisan press in the U.K., the Daily Mail was saying, this is - you know, the Daily Mail, for our listeners, they're a very conservative tabloid. They were saying, this is unacceptable. And so what was really interesting in the U.K. is there was no newspaper or news organization that tried to spread disinformation to say, oh, Boris is cool. He always tells the truth. Everybody knew that Boris Johnson was a habitual liar.

DETROW: Right.

LANGFITT: And so that's not the case in America. And so that's why you can have these conversations because you're not trying to talk to someone and convince them of a fact. Everybody knew that. Even my next door neighbor, who were Brexit voters, who were classic Tories in the suburbs of London, they knew who Boris Johnson was. That, to me, is a fundamental difference.

DETROW: So we've been talking about differences between...

LANGFITT: Sure.

DETROW: ...The British system and the American system - much shorter election season.

LANGFITT: Much.

DETROW: You think a lot less partisan in a way that, you know, you can actually have conversations. There's shared reality. But you and I have talked a lot over the years about similarities in moments in British and American politics where you kind of see waves that have similar trends in the countries. So from your perspective, what do you think is at stake in this upcoming election that might tell us something about what we might be in store for in the United States?

LANGFITT: You know, this is a question that makes me sad. I'll just be honest with you. But some of the malaise and division that we see in the United Kingdom, I worry if that's a little bit of the Ghost of Christmas Future...

DETROW: Yeah.

LANGFITT: ...Because it's hard to get things done. It's a country that doesn't seem to have great direction. It has been polarized over economic issues, over immigration, some very familiar issues.

DETROW: How many prime ministers did you roll through when you were covering?

LANGFITT: I want to say it was five.

DETROW: Yeah.

LANGFITT: And I missed Liz Truss because I was in - covering the war in Ukraine. So I think I got a week of Liz Truss 'cause she wasn't there very long.

DETROW: That's, like, half her tenure (laughter).

LANGFITT: Yeah. And so I worry a little bit about that because I do see some similarities. And I do want to say, as we were talking, it is very polarized.

DETROW: Yeah.

LANGFITT: But it's not anywhere near as bad as what I've encountered coming back to the United States.

DETROW: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. He spent several years as our London correspondent and is now our global democracy correspondent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and its implications in Europe. Langfitt has reported from more than fifty countries and territories around the globe.