The United Kingdom, land of free entreprise and Europe's largest financial centre, the City of London, with its record number of super-rich residents, is in dire straits. According to some, the UK, with its deficit of 180 billion sterling, is the sick man of Europe. And in this context, London has no interest in making a fuss about the Greek crisis. The state isn't doing well, and ordinary people are not much better off. Household debt in the UK is twice as high as it is in France.

But this is not the only scourge. A large number of organisations have deplored the increasingly common phenomena of knife attacks, binge drinking among women, and a level of insecurity that has required the installation of metal detectors at school gates, while sociological studies have identified a new fast growing category: the NEETs, individuals who are "Not in Education, Employment or Training."

Cameron has set a trap for himself

But is the UK really caught in the grip of a "social recession"? Not according to The Economist, which recently presented a formidable array of graphs and figures that contradict the theory of decline. The crime rate is falling, as is the number of underage mothers (though teenage parents are still more common in Britain than they are elsewhere in Europe). Drug and alcohol consumption is also falling, albeit only slightly. However, this data is not reflected by public opinion, which has a largely negative perception of the country. In 1997, when a new Labour government put an end to 18 years of Conservative Party rule, 40% of Britons believed their country was becoming a worse place to live. Under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, even before the crisis, this figure had reached 73%.

Last year, Brown's popularity fell to point where it was clear that if the Conservative Party did not succeed this time around, they would never win. But in proposing to address the issue of a "broken society", Conservative leader David Cameron has set a trap for himself: because if his diagnosis is correct, where will he find the resources to cure the British people of this serious disease, especially in the context of the current economic crisis. In short, in view of the UK's soaring deficit, no future government can pledge to provide anything more than hard work and sympathy. Public spending cuts have been accepted as inevitable (to the point where political parties can mention them), and tax increases are likely (although most politicians prefer to remain silent on this question).

TV debate as gamechanger

At the same time, the election may well be marked by a hitherto unprecedented intrusion of emotion in politics. In a bid to analyse this phenomenon, we should bear in mind the largely hysterical reaction of the British public to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. For the people, she was the "Queen of Hearts", but she was treated with great reserve by the political establishment, which did not credit her with the class or maturity required for a future queen. A year later in 1998, the tabloids reacted angrily to an essay by Professor Anthony O'Hear of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Faking It – The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society, which claimed that the universal mourning revealed a profoundly negative trend in the country epitomised by an "insatiable appetite for sentimentality, which turns a blind eye to reality in every aspect of our existence."

But what has that got to do with today's general election? The introduction of TV debates for the main candidates for the post of prime minister has introduced a new dimension of spontaneous reaction and appeal to sentiment. At the same time, this novelty imported from abroad may exert a powerful force for change in the nature of the British political system.

UK voted used to run along class lines

The British are obsessed by the need for strong government, and are genuinely fearful of hung parliaments and the need to form a coalition that may emerge in such situations. The traditional view is that the government should be directly responsible to voters. In the event of a coalition, political power is not conferred by the people but by a deal between the parties, whose terms are negotiated behind closed doors out of earshot of the electorate, explains George Jones, Emeritus Professor of Government at the London School of Economics. Recently we have witnessed a major political transformation with the emergence of a third party in the shape of the Liberal Democrats. But why has this change occurred? Because for the first time, most of the British public has seen the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, on television.

In the past, the vote in the UK was largely conducted along class lines. People voted with their party: if they were poor they voted Labour, if they were well off, they voted Conservative. Today, this schema no longer applies, the traditional battle lines have been blurred in a more uniform middle class, and the question of social class is considered to be increasingly irrelevant in politics. It is clear that Britain's single round first past the post voting system does not favour the Liberal Democrats, and Clegg could make his participation in a coalition conditional on the introduction of proportional representation. The Conservatives would certainly oppose such a move, whereas Labour may give it some thought. But regardless of today's result, the era of the two-party system in the UK has now come to an end.