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.
#ad#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.
#ad#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.
The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, rebranded the party as egalitarian and compassionate, while still holding it slightly to the right of Brown’s mutation of Blairism. Disgust with the government, and the failure of Cameron to set any great fires of anticipation as Blair had done, has caused another of the periodic revivals of the Liberal Democrats, chronically out of government since Lloyd George’s time.
That party, for 80 years, has been a catchment for eccentrics and for the meteoric public infatuation that occurs when the British are especially underwhelmed by what is on offer from the main parties. It remains a goofy, environmentalist, nuclear-disarmament pastiche of uninformed, untested people with a half-baked program.
#ad#Mrs. Thatcher pointed out in the 1987 election campaign that the Liberal–Social Democratic Alliance called for the merger of the Royal Navy into a Euronavy, retaining its nuclear missiles but granting on-ship authority for firing the missiles to French officers. This pantomime horse did not play well in the proverbial Dog and Duck pubs of middle England.
At times in the last few weeks, the three parties have been running neck and neck in the polls, and Labour has been appeasing the Liberals in the evident hope of forming a post-election coalition with them. The last polls show the Conservatives leading in a minority Parliament. I predict that Britain will retain its dislike of minority government and that Cameron will eke out a majority of 15 to 25 MPs (in a Parliament of 630 MPs), an adequate majority, only a little smaller than Mrs. Thatcher had in her first term.
The Liberal menace is not to the Conservatives but to Labour. Now that Labour no longer fronts the Luddites of the old trade-union movement, who sang “Soak the rich and squeeze them until the pips squeak,” and the LibDems are just a blanc-mange of pretty bi-gender faces uttering meaningless sound bites, nothing separates them. The great Irony of New Labour is that Tony Blair, in making his party reelectable by liberating it from the Trades Union Council, has demoralized its rock-solid voter base and made it vulnerable to being overtaken by the long-slumbering unofficial opposition, which now rivals it for equal-opportunity, omni-directional, bleeding-heart hemophilia.
In Britain, parties don’t vanish as the U.S. Federalists and Whigs did; they run along on the fringe, if need be for nearly a century, waiting for recall to center stage. Cameron should take over as head of a somewhat talented ministry with just enough MPs to govern, but a very fuzzy Butskillite vision, swaddled worrisomely in infelicitous phrases such as “The Big Society.” There will be only a short honeymoon.
If Cameron stumbles at or just inside the door, the way will be open for the most interesting politician in Europe and the most probable replicator of a new force in British politics of the strength of Thatcher and Blair, London’s flamboyant Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson. Johnson has won the hearts of much of the British public with such rejoinders as — when asked why he went into politics — “They don’t raise up statues to journalists,” and — when informed by a voter on her doorstep that she would vote for him — “But Madam, why?” He has been recruited to repulse the LibDem offensive and describes them in such terms as “Euro-loving road-hump fetishists.” The sun is not setting on the British political sound-bite.