As an American, there’s lots about British culture that I’ve had the pleasure of picking up these last few years. Unique words, different turns of phrase, some unnecessarily complicated spellings, and also whole cultural phenomena which are new to me. One which falls into the last category is the ‘hustings.’
A word which I can’t imagine has ever once been uttered upon the Atlantic’s other shores, ‘hustings’, (as I learned thanks to the OED) is a conjunction of the Old Norse words hùs (house) and thing (assembly). Its use to refer to a grilling of parliamentary candidates derives from the fact that it was the name of the place where candidates stood in the medieval assemblies of the City of London once they had been nominated.
The hustings which we hosted last night were certainly quite a bit different from my experiences, but nonetheless, deeply fascinating. A few observations from a curious non-voter here:
1. All the candidates were women. Perhaps that’s not a headline-worthy statement here (which is the best part), but I can think of very few examples of American political offices where all of the candidates were female and it wasn’t tokenised or turned into a gimmick. Last night, listening to Rebecca Lury, Daisy Cooper, and Anne Main debate with eachother (and the audience) I was struck by how different the discussion would be Stateside. The fact of their femininity would have been far more central, with probing questions about how they intended to hold office while raising a family or subtle jabs calling into question the legitimacy of their credentials. None of that even subtly arose – if people challenged these three candidates it was on their policies and not their gender, and I think that’s fabulous.
2. The Jewish community matters. This is one where actually I have the reverse surprise. In the States, Jewish political power is more significant because the population is so much larger than the UK (roughly 7 million in the US versus 300 thousand here). In the States, politicians frequently pander to the ‘Jewish vote’ usually by making noises about their support of Israel. It is an unstated rule that presidential candidates are expected to speak at the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference the year of their election to show that they’re giving time to the Jewish and Zionist cause. Clearly– that dynamic is absent in the UK, as I expected. However, I was pleasantly surprised that even though foreign policy was not raised once last night (and Israel never mentioned), the Jewish community is seen as significant enough to garner an evening of the candidates’ time in the midst of potentially the busiest few weeks of their lives. I think that’s a universal good – because whether we agree or not with them, at least we can say that the candidates see us as worthy of talking to.
3. The red-shift. By this I mean that the Tories here sound like more conservative, southern-state Democrats, the Lib Dems sound like left-centre mainstream Democrats, and Labour sounds like the progressive left-edge of the Democrats. If you were to map the UK political spectrum onto the US one, there would be a distinct red-shift/left-shift. They’re all Democrats Absent altogether from the discussion last night was the sort of hard-right, ultranationalist, evangelical Reublicanism which is so keen on seeming to be past-looking that ‘paleo’-conservative is a compliment. I realise those strains do exist in some parties here, but thankfully they are so marginal, especially compared to the acceptability of horrible ideas in contemporary America. It used to be that some of the ideas which are now ‘normal’ were unacceptable. Seeing that the UK has held that line – that all of the parties, regardless of their differences, avoid falling off the right-hand cliff, is a relief.
I’m no political commentator, and as I said – I’m also not a UK voter (yet, perhaps)– but I was deeply impressed with the candidates, their preparedness, and the tenor or the conversation which we held between them and us. I really applaud all of those people who helped organise the event, and I hope that all of you are registered to vote and intend to do so on 12 December. No matter how much we may despair over the state of politics, ceasing to vote will gain nothing and only further cede ground to extreme views.
I’m attaching here a prayer written for an American context but nonetheless quite relevant – expressing the importance and sanctity of voting in a Jewish framework – a prayer before voting.