Politics & Policy

The British Elections, in Perspective

From almost any conservative angle, Britain’s election result is disappointing.

From the standpoint of a British conservative, the Tory party lost a third election and gained very little ground–less than one percent of the popular vote. From an American conservative standpoint, Tony Blair, who is a loyal friend of the United States, is today in a noticeably weakened political state. Though he won a third term–the first Labor prime minister to do so–he saw his majority substantially reduced and his share of the popular vote fall to a derisory 36 percent. If the British electoral system had not become so lopsidedly biased, he would have almost no majority at all.

From the standpoint of a foreign-policy conservative, Blair’s loss is a sign of weakening support for the U.S. across Europe, even in America’s most reliable ally. Blair is generally reckoned to have lost a large number of “middle-class progressive” votes (i.e., Guardian-reading, muesli-eating, electric-car-driving voters) to the Liberal Democrats because of their hostility to the Iraq war.

Blair’s Labor colleagues will draw the appropriate lesson. Britain will not soon support the U.S. in any future U.S. crisis and may gradually be absorbed by the anti-American political culture of continental Europe. And from the standpoint of a philosophical conservative, the upsurge of Liberal Democrat support in university towns in opposition to Blair’s modest free-market proposal of “top-up” university fees flags the difficulty of reversing even the most indefensible free lunch offered by the welfare state.

Indeed, Blair’s attempt to marry quasi-market reforms with social redistribution in an ideologically distinct New Labor package is almost certainly collapsing. It was never popular in his own party–Old Labor stalwarts regarded Blair as a secret Tory. He no longer has the clout that his reputation as Labor’s biggest electoral asset gave him until yesterday; rather he is now seen as an electoral liability. And his finance minister, Gordon Brown, will want to replace him before the economic and financial problems coming down the pike damage his prospects for the succession.

So a period of intense internal Labor turmoil is ahead. It is likely to take place against a background of economic and financial difficulties. And since the new government has a majority large enough to stay in office for a full five years, that promises to shake up the British political system in a big way.

“There are signs of conservative

opportunities in the current situation —

in the form of voters, issues,

and readiness.”

In confusion there is profit, however, as Tony Curtis’s character says in Operation Petticoat. There are signs of conservative opportunities in the current situation–in the form of voters, issues, and readiness.

First there are a lot of voters now in play after the election results. Labor lost six percent of its 2001 vote. Many more voters–about 40 percent–did not vote at all. Some of Labor’s missing voters went to the Lib-Dems, but not all. And the Lib-Dems themselves lost some voters who finally recognized that they were a left-wing party rather than a centrist one. What has gone unnoticed is that almost eight percent of the voters–a very large percentage in the British system–chose small protest parties such as Veritas, the fascist British National party, and the eccentrically Euroskeptic UKIP. Most of these voters are right-wing in some sense or other. They might once have voted Lib-Dem but not now. And they are open to persuasion over the next few years.

Second, the upcoming issues in this parliament are likely to be conservative ones that drive people to the right–for instance, the referendum on the European constitution. Left-wing issues such as Iraq are likely to fade from the public mind. And the biggest issue of all will be the fiscal crises against which the IMF warned during the campaign. Whether Blair or Brown is prime minister, the government will be unable to finance large injections of public money into failing public services from “stealth” taxes that nobody notices. On the contrary, massive bills for previous expenditures and regulatory costs will become due shortly. So Labor will either have to raise taxes sharply or cut back on spending, and in either event they will have to bring serious market reforms into health and other public services.

However such choices go, they would tend to split Labor, antagonize the Lib-Dems, and benefit the Tories. And in all cases they will clarify political choices for the voters in a way that New Labor has confused them.

Third, the Tories are more ready than any other party to take advantage of these two opportunities. Their vote rose, albeit only slightly, rather than fell. They fought a hard-hitting and focused campaign that won back some of their core. (Australian Lynton Crosby earned his fee and then some.) The issues they emphasized, notably immigration, are those likely to win over the voters newly in play.

With Michael Howard’s decision to resign after presiding over an orderly rethink of policies and a leadership election, the Tories seem finally to have overcome their fissiparous infighting. They have the leisure, the time, and the stability to rethink their distinctly timid economic strategy and to invest in building and selling a new one rooted in limited government.

More important than all that, however, is that a spell has been broken in British politics. Until Friday morning both New Labor devotees and their Tory and Lib-Dem opponents were stuck in a fatalistic acceptance of Blair and his party’s dominance. It was hard to inspire anyone outside New Labor into serious thinking about politics, the economy, and foreign policy because any such thoughts would apparently lead nowhere. It was equally difficult to get New Labor to think outside its narrow range of pre-packaged politics, notably Europhilia and social-democratic control freakery. Suddenly, however, a much wider range of options is open–and generally they are conservative options.

None of the above arguments mean that the Tories are destined to win the next election–which may be five years away–or even that they should. We’ll make that judgment at the time. Unless the Tories make a series of avoidable errors, however, they can and will establish a “pole of attraction” on domestic issues that could drag a flailing Labor government in the direction of low taxes and limited government rather than being dragged themselves (as happened recently) into New Labor’s force-field.

Even more important to Americans, if the Tories act boldly on European defense and foreign-policy issues, they should counter the “pole” of anti-Americanism that the Lib-Dems established to such damaging effect in this campaign.

And if they attain those two broad objectives even in part, then conservatives of all stripes will find their present disappointments gradually evaporating.

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