Britain votes on Thursday, and it is difficult to discern the defining issues; it’s a campaign of indistinct party leaders decrying the economy and bandying about platitudes endlessly. Under the British parliamentary system, where the executive sits in the legislature and must be steadily maintained by a majority there, there is a historic dread of a minority government — “a hung Parliament,” as it is called.
Unlike Canada and some other stable democracies where the leading candidate in each constituency (district) wins, regardless of how fragmented the vote is, Britain has not had a minority government in its modern history, though it has had coalition governments in war and economic emergencies.
The consequences of a minority government would be less bothersome than the facts that make such a result possible. The British ruling classes, in what had been a very stratified society, lost their nerve after World War I, in which the traditional elites were decimated in the hecatomb of the Western Front. Only a brave handful, led by Winston Churchill, soldiered on to the next conflict. And the working class became very demonstrative in the economically troubled interwar years.
The British Labour party, founded in the early years of the 20th century by the Scot Keir Hardie, had a similar program and about the same level of success as Eugene V. Debs’s American Socialists, until Labour became a distinct opposition facing a Liberal-Conservative wartime coalition headed by David Lloyd George. When this dissolved in 1922, Labour ran ahead of the Liberals and through the Twenties displaced it as the alternate party of government to the Conservatives. But in its first four tries at government, under Ramsay MacDonald (1924, 1929–35), Clement Attlee (1945–51), Harold Wilson (1964–70), and Wilson and James Callaghan (1974–79), it couldn’t get two consecutive full terms. Always, its performance was too worrisomely unsuccessful to merit being returned with a clear mandate.
From 1955 to 1979 — between the two great prime ministers of post–World War I Britain, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher — there was what amounted to alternating Labour/Red Tory government, where the Conservatives ran only slightly to the right of Labour in what became known as “Butskillism,” after the long-serving Conservative deputy leader, R. A. Butler, and the Labour party leader, Hugh Gaitskill.
By 1979, almost everyone — including the London garbage collectors and undertakers — was on strike; Labour had boosted the maximum personal income tax to 98 percent; and the country was strangled by currency exchange controls and was under daily audit from the International Monetary Fund (whose credibility in auditing anyone was suspect).
Margaret Thatcher and John Major shaped Britain up from 1979 to 1997, and when Tony Blair returned with Labour 13 years ago, he took over a Britain where top personal-income-tax rates had been lowered to 40 percent; there had been a massive privatization and rationalization of industry, state assets, and public housing; national debt had been reduced; the rapacious labor unions had been tamed; and Britain’s prestige in the world had risen — thanks to the Falklands and Gulf Wars, to Mrs. Thatcher’s close relations with President Reagan, and to her role in ending the Cold War — to its highest point since the Churchill Gloriana of more than 50 years before.
Tony Blair and his predecessors as Labour-party leader had canceled the controlling labor-union bloc vote at parliamentary nominating conventions, and pledged not to give the store back to the unions or to raise personal income taxes. Blair also pledged to be radical in dealing with teachers’ and nurses’ unions, which had caused British state education to become steadily less competitive, and caused the National Health Service, with more than a million employees, to become one of the largest and most inefficient employers in Europe. Blair promised, in some respects, to be more Thatcherite than Thatcher, while mysteriously being more “caring.” There were portentous comments that only Labour could cope with the public-service unions, as only Richard Nixon could go to China and only Menachem Begin could give Sinai back to Egypt.
After 18 years of the strenuous exercise of the Thatcher Conservatives, Britain was ready for a change to moderate New Labour. Blair kept his promises about unions and taxes, but instead of forcing reforms in education and health care, he gradually squandered Britain’s fiscal health by throwing money into those colossal vacuum cleaners, with no discernible improvement in services.
Thatcher was the first prime minister since before the First Reform Act, which broadened the electorate in 1832, to win three consecutive full-term election majorities. Blair equaled this, but his successor, Gordon Brown, unlike Thatcher’s, John Major, will not make it four terms. Gordon Brown raised every tax but the personal income tax as Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer, and as prime minister, has raised income taxes as well, compromised London’s status as one of the world’s premier financial centers, and mired the country in debt.
All that is left of the great days of Thatcherism, though they are important heirlooms, are a strong private sector, flexible labor markets, and continued abstention from the total immersion in Euro-federalism Labour has generally favored.
The last three Conservative leaders since John Major — William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard — among the 27 leaders the British Conservative party has had since William Pitt the Younger in 1783, have quadrupled the number who have never been prime minister, where six of Labour’s twelve leaders have not.