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A chad with that haggis?

By DIANE ROBERTS Other views
Published May 19, 2007


LONDON -- When the British think of Florida, what springs first into their minds: Disney World? South Beach? Mojitos by the swimming pool?

Nope. Florida means messed-up elections. The recent vote for the Scottish Parliament put the country in mind of Florida in 2000, complete with badly designed ballots, malfunctioning machines and recounts. Out of about 2-million votes cast, 7 percent were "spoiled papers," disqualified ballots. One pundit described it as "a malfunction of Florida-sized proportions."

Tony Blair has this strange symbiotic relationship with President Bush. Both are mired in Iraq and suffering from southbound approval ratings. Bush's presidency began with a dubious election in Florida; Blair's political career now ends with a dubious election in what the newspapers are calling "Florida North."

As if his own "Florida" fiasco weren't injury enough, Blair's Labor Party suffered the insult of losing hundreds of local offices in England to the revived Conservatives. It wasn't supposed to be like this for Blair. Though he's been saying he would resign for more than two years, he wasn't about to go until at least some of his legacy was secure.

The Scottish and Welsh elections, as well as the power-sharing government just inaugurated in Northern Ireland, were supposed to demonstrate how Blair brought democracy to all parts of the United Kingdom. When Blair took office in 1997, the Scottish Parliament hadn't met for 290 years. Wales hadn't been governed by the Welsh since 1536. Northern Ireland, sectarian for centuries, had been wracked by so much internecine violence and domestic terrorism that it appeared to be ungovernable by anyone.

Blair has delivered on Northern Ireland. On May 8 the Rev. Ian Paisley, firebrand preacher and unionist, stood with Martin McGuinness, former Irish Republican Army commander turned Sinn Fein politico. They shook hands and laughed (perhaps too hard) at each other's jokes as they took office as first minister and deputy first minister, Protestant and Catholic, working together. Blair presided over the disarmament of the IRA and the major Unionist paramilitary groups. Thanks to Blair (as well as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and President Clinton), peace has broken out in Ulster. Ever the brilliant PR PM, Blair postponed announcing the timetable for his resignation as prime minister until after the Belfast ceremony.

However, Wales and Scotland are not among Blair's valedictory triumphs. He did fulfill his promise to give Wales its own legislative body and revive the Scottish Parliament. Yet in last week's elections, Labor barely eked out a majority in the Cardiff assembly. In Scotland, Labor has been the majority party for half a century. As Scots like to point out (or used to, anyway), it was Scottish Labor candidates who assured Blair of good parliamentary majorities in three U.K. elections. But this year, Labor came second to the insurgent Scottish Nationalist Party. The SNP has 47 seats to Labor's 46, while other parties (Greens, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives) make up the rest of the Edinburgh Parliament. It takes 65 to have a majority. So it looks like Scotland, far from supporting the outgoing Prime Minister Blair and his successor Gordon Brown -- both Scots themselves -- will be paralyzed.

In his 10 years, Blair has accomplished much, strengthening the economy, expanding access to higher education, increasing spending on health care, aid for Africa, insisting on progressive environmental policies and giving citizens greater local control over their own regions. He led humanitarian interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

Still, the Iraq war guaranteed Labor would be smacked down by a huge protest vote -- just as the Republicans were last November. April was the deadliest month yet for British troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless it's ironic that the last gasp of his tenure should be tainted by a mess of an election -- "Florida style."

It's as if palm trees started growing in Edinburgh, and Glasgow found itself covered in kudzu.

Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, teaches English and writing at Florida State University.