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.
These polls show that only 22 percent of the British are positive about Europe, 19 percent are negative but wish to renegotiate some sort of membership, though not a federal or centralized one, and 26 percent are negative and want out altogether. Prime Minister Cameron personally has a 28 percent approval rating, an equal 28 percent don’t approve of him but don’t prefer the vintage Labour leader Ed Miliband (who has ditched any pretense to New Labour), and another 28 percent disapprove of Cameron so thoroughly that they do prefer Miliband. Overall, Labour leads the Conservatives 38 percent to 33 percent and the Liberal Democrats and the UKIP are both around 10 percent. But almost all the UKIP votes come from the Conservatives, and they are spread fairly evenly throughout the country.
Despite his problems, which were aggravated by his proximity to the much-mistrusted Rupert Murdoch organization in the hacking scandal last year, Cameron still leads on the major issue of the economy, 43 to 26 percent, and on the third issue, immigration, and on Europe. His standing on that last question has been reinforced by a promise of an in-or-out referendum in 2017. This was the best he could do, as his coalition partners would desert him if he tried such a referendum now. If Britain were to lurch into the arms of Labour at the next election, it would follow the Gadarene route to immolation as a serious force that France is now charging down under its new socialist president, François Hollande.
Cameron is trying to redress the errors of Blair and Brown, without recalling what are still popularly seen as the “uncaring” severity and excessive traditionalism of Thatcher. But the underlying strategic difficulty the United Kingdom faces is that the pre-Thatcher Conservatives under Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath (prime ministers 1957–63 and 1970–74 respectively) plunged headlong into Europe and ditched their long and very useful relationship with Britain’s senior associate states in the Commonwealth: Canada, Australia, India, Singapore, and New Zealand, which have all done much better than Europe in most of the intervening years, and are united with Britain in language, institutions, and a democratic inheritance (from Britain herself). Thatcher thought better of that and placed all her bets on the American alliance with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. It worked, but it didn’t last. Obama has no interest in the special relationship, or what was called in the days of Churchill and Roosevelt, with reason, the Grand Alliance, and Britain is an orphan: no special ally, no coterie of kindred and flourishing states, and no room to grow in the European inn.
In their long and illustrious history, the British have met sterner challenges. But they will need a majority government with a clear mandate and a stronger leader than Cameron has appeared to be. The likeliest bet now is that if he falters, the folkloric star mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will get the call from the Conservatives, who have sacked virtually all of their leaders since the voluntary retirement of Stanley Baldwin in 1937. (Even Winston Churchill was eased out at 80, and Margaret Thatcher was pushed out for predicting exactly what has happened in Europe.) Whether or not Cameron stays, he will probably have to dump the Liberal Democrats as he dissolves Parliament for elections in two years, in favor of an arrangement with Farage. In such times, great statesmen of the past such as Walpole, the Pitts elder and younger, Fox, Palmerston, Russell, Disraeli, Gladstone, and Lloyd George flourished. As in most other countries, the current crop, except perhaps for Farage, does not appear to be cut from the same cloth. Britain always muddles through, but it’s dodgy.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].