The United Kingdom is rivaled by no other country as a continuous major power since the rise of the nation-state, but it is now slipping into a crisis of national purpose as serious as it passed through prior to the Thatcher years (1979–90). By the late 1970s, Britain had an unruly industrial-relations climate, was lumbered by a vast and hemorrhagingly unprofitable public sector, had a 98 percent top personal-income-tax rate, and was in danger of becoming a silly and backward place. Thatcher tamed the labor unions, radically reduced taxes, privatized almost everything, gave the Argentinians a good thrashing over the Falklands (restoring democracy to Argentina in the process, though it hasn’t worked very well), and played a front-rank role, with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, in the Western victory in the Cold War. Britain was restored to the place she has generally occupied since early Henrician times as one of the world’s most respected nations.
Much, though not all, of this has been squandered by Margaret Thatcher’s successors. John Major kept most of her accomplishments in place and won a fourth straight full-term majority for the Conservatives (the first a party has had since before the first Reform Act of 1832, which expanded the electorate). Then came Tony Blair and New Labour. Gradually, almost all taxes except those on individual and personal incomes were raised, and finally those were, too. The proceeds were poured into the public service, while, in a pattern familiar to Americans, standards of state education and public health care declined. What was new about Labour was that, for the first time, it was reelected to consecutive full terms (three terms), before being rejected under Blair’s successor, the long-serving chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, in 2011. No previous Labour government had lasted more than six years (Ramsay Macdonald, 1929–35; Clement Attlee, 1945–51; Harold Wilson, 1964–70; Wilson and James Callaghan, 1974–79). These 23 years in power were all that Labour had to show for the 73 years it had been the alternate party of government with the Conservatives prior to the election of Tony Blair in 1997, and four of the Macdonald years were in a rickety coalition dominated by the Conservatives and sponsored by a royal request from King George V.
It was an achievement for Labour to be consecutively returned to office three times, but it now appears to have been a testimony more to the immense success of the Thatcher-Major years that required a long time to squander, than to any masterly aptitude at governance by Labour. Blair was, as he remains, an amiable man and a reliable ally (as were Attlee, Wilson, and Callaghan), but by retaining Thatcher’s discipline of the unions and avoiding the traditional Labour addiction to punitive income-tax increases, he avoided being jettisoned on the customary fast track after four or five years of socialist nostrums. But old, far-left Labour replaced Brown after all parties lost in the election of 2011. The public was not sufficiently impressed with the Conservatives under David Cameron to give them a majority, and engaged in the rare self-indulgence of a large vote to the Liberal Democrats, who last were in government in peacetime in Macdonald’s ineffectual regime, and last led a government themselves under David Lloyd George in the piping days of Woodrow Wilson and Warren Gamaliel Harding. The country has its first peacetime coalition in over 75 years.
By imposition of a pantomime horse of austerity and stimulus, where the Conservative front and Lib-Dem back legs aren’t synchronized, the government has generated no economic growth and has suffered all of the standard erosion of popularity that afflicts governments trying to fight off a stagflationary recession. The aberrant support for the third party has collapsed, and the Liberal Democrats are barely holding their own against the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by the country’s most persuasive and articulate party leader, Nigel Farage. The UKIP advanced initially in outspoken opposition to Euro-integration, but is also a skillful populist articulation of middle-class values. And in current polls, Europe — though the British are unhappy with it and have long since given up on the Euro-federalist dream, which, at its most florid, predicted the return of preeminent world influence to the nations of the old continent standing on each other’s shoulders — ranked as a concern behind the economy, the welfare system, immigration, the deficit, and the National Health Service.