The Cameron-Clegg Challenge
The U.K. has massive problems.


Conrad Black

Undismayed by my unsuccessful prediction of a narrow Conservative majority in the British election last week, I return intrepidly to forecast the consequences of the actual result of the election. At the risk of seeming to be motivated by sour grapes, I assert that what has befallen post-Thatcher Britain has been a cataract of disasters, and the late election result could be one of the heaviest of them.

In making the Labour party reelectable, for the first time, to consecutive full terms, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have enabled their party to bring the U.K. to the brink of a shambles almost as complete as awaited Margaret Thatcher when she conquered the smoldering ruins at the commanding heights of government left by the Wilson-Callaghan Labour party in 1979.

At 13 percent of GDP, the U.K.’s budget deficit is larger than that of the U.S. The public-sector share of GDP has risen more than 25 percent above its Thatcher levels, to over 50 percent. All economic indicators are gloomier than those of the U.S., Germany, and France. Brown has largely strangled London’s ability to compete with New York as a financial center, with nasty and stealthy taxes.

Thatcher and the majority of Britons have avoided the Euro and have regularly refrained from total Eurofederalist immersion because the country did not wish to exchange the political institutions that have served it well for many centuries for the bureaucratized, new-fledged arrangements of the European Union. It did not wish high European taxes or a return to the chaos of pre-Thatcher industrial relations. And Britain did not want to have the Anglo-American relationship, so central to victory in World War II and the Cold War, subsumed into the rather conventional and indifferent relations between the United States and France and Germany.

Barack Obama has gratuitously returned the bust of Sir Winston Churchill that had been in the Oval Office; he gave Queen Elizabeth an iPod when he visited London. (Gordon Brown very thoughtfully gave him a fine carving from the timbers of a slave ship.) And Obama has made it clear that he attaches no importance at all to relations with Britain. He has reviled the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship, which saved Western civilization, as cozy and exclusive, and perhaps even bibulous.

Thirteen years of Gordon Brown as chancellor of the exchequer and prime minister have wiped out Britain’s tax and other advantages over the rest of Europe, and — except for more flexible labor markets — Britain no longer has any such advantages, and is gasping in financial crisis in unison with most of it.

And now, there must be some question about the enduring value of British political institutions. The British and other foreigners snorted with derision at the uncertain outcome of the 2000 presidential election (as they confidently pointed to the inevitable end of the U.S. as a majority-Caucasian country, until they became accustomed to mass Muslim disturbances in their own countries). But the Bush-Gore election was a dignified transition compared with the shabby spectacle of double horse-trading that has gone on in the last few days over the composition of the British government.

Labour mismanagement was comprehensively rejected; the swift Liberal (Democratic) rise fizzled on election eve, as the party has for 80 years, but the Conservatives and their allies seem to have come in about ten seats short of a majority in what should have been a won election. A LibLab coalition would have only a few more MPs than the Conservatives, so the government would survive at the whim of the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalists, a rather wild and woolly group, including the four members of Sinn Fein, unrepentant supporters of the terrorist IRA.

The Liberal leader, Nicholas Clegg, who gained only 1 percent from the previous election and actually lost a couple of MPs, successfully wrung from the rejected but resourceful Gordon Brown an agreement to share cabinet positions, which the Liberals have not held since Churchill’s wartime government of national unity, and agreement on further policy moves to the left. Most important, there seemed to be agreement on proportional representation, which would radically alter the British political system — from constituency representation to slates of candidates — and would ensure that there would never be a one-party majority again. There would be muddled election programs, intense pressure for fragmentation of parties to maximize influence in the hands of schismatic groups, and the demeaning political bargaining so familiar in Israel, Italy, and other countries not best known for political stability and integrity.