WHEN I was in America recently, watching Al Gore strut around during his last television debate with George W Bush - waving his finger in his opponent's face and generally behaving like the most obnoxious smart a - - e in the lower fifth - I thought to myself, "What kind of person thinks that this is the way to behave when he is running for the presidency?" Well, now we know. Mr Gore is the sort of person who is prepared to set fire to the stadium because he has lost the game.
I am what is known in official diplomatic terms as a "dual national", having both British and American citizenship, so I view these startling events with a peculiar kind of double vision. (The American authorities took my passport away at one point when I became a naturalised Briton, but gave it back when the Supreme Court decided, in a characteristic resurgence of American reason and fairness, that US citizens could not so easily be deprived of their nationality.)
When I can peel myself away from the CNN coverage on my television screen, I take a look at the parochial wittering that constitutes so much of the British commentary on this great political spectacle. Being immersed, as I generally am, in Britain's own political discourse, it seems odd to see it shrink before my eyes into this irrelevant, largely ignorant and obviously self-interested babble.
Does no one in this country - including the American correspondents of our broadcasting networks - have any real understanding of the political culture and history of the United States? Do the British Left-liberal commentators who want to see Mr Gore elected at any price have any idea of the logical consequences of what they are saying?
The opening shot of the British "Gore was robbed" school is usually the popular vote case. If marginally more people voted for Mr Gore than for Mr Bush in the national vote, then he must be the moral winner. Surely the less popular candidate cannot be rightfully elected president? Ergo, the entire electoral college system is antiquated rubbish which should be junked in favour of strict majoritarianism.
What this would mean in practice would be that all future presidential elections would be determined by a few densely populated urban conurbations: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would have an unbreakable stranglehold on the presidency. The great mass of rural and small-town middle America, virtually the whole sweep of the continent from north to south between the two coastal fringes, would be effectively powerless. This is precisely what those few Democrat hotheads in the United States who have dared to suggest "a rethink" of the electoral college system would like: the absolute dominion of urban liberal political tastes.
To institute such a thing would be to reignite the American Civil War, which was settled - uneasily - on the understanding that metropolitan interests would not be allowed to run untrammelled over local ones. The United States, unlike those foppish dilettantes in New Labour, takes its devolution very seriously.
And what would the pundits' sudden passion for national majority rule mean if it were applied to Britain? Well, pretty much permanent Conservative government. The vastly more populous South-East, which is usually far more Tory than the country at large, would dominate the election. Our constituency system, which gives disproportionate weight to votes in less populated areas, corrects for this tendency, just as the electoral college system does in America.
If the total national vote were to be all that mattered here, voters of the South-West and East Anglia would be largely disfranchised, and those in northern Scotland and Wales should scarcely be bothered to get out of bed on election day. Presumably the majoritarian concept of democracy doesn't look quite so attractive put like that. In the United States, the metropolitan liberal hegemony would be only too happy to write off the hicks, but would the Left here want to disempower those reliable knee-jerk Labour strongholds in the Celtic fringe?
Then there is the business of spoilt ballots. Again, much of the British media are allowing themselves to be whipped into a lather by the pantomime which the Democrats have managed to create over ballot papers whose design was considered uncontroversial even by their own party officials until Mr Gore lost the election. What with all the concern about the Palm Beach voters (now known as "Gore's morons") who didn't seem to know how to punch a hole that corresponded to an arrow, we seem to have lost sight of our own stringent attitude to spoilt ballot papers.
I expect you are aware - and, certainly, all those commentators who are fretting about the poor confused voters of Palm Beach, are aware - that Britain takes no prisoners on this issue. According to law, there are three categories under which your vote may be rejected in a British election: "uncertainty" (when it is unclear how you have voted); voting for more than one candidate (as seems to have occurred in Palm Beach); and lack of an official stamp on your paper. Generally, your vote is acceptable only so long as it is clear and unambiguous. Once a vote is declared "spoilt", it is permanently out of play, even in a recount. And that, rigorous or ruthless as it may seem, is the way it has to be.
Elections involving millions of people and votes must be governed by strict rules if they are not to be open to abuse and infinite disputation. Mr Gore's self-serving opportunism in opening this litigious chasm should be a lesson to us all. Can you imagine the feast that a bunch of eager-beaver human rights lawyers (like the ones who now run New Labour) could make of spoilt ballot papers in multi-ethnic constituencies in some future election which failed to go their way?
Mr Gore will be remembered - even if he should become president - as the man who didn't know how to lose like a gentleman. British liberals should choose their heroes more carefully.