Party Time in Britain
Labour's civil war and the Torie's love-in
October 16, 2006
by Irwin Stelzer
London A week among the New Labour crowd of failed regicides, union leaders who hanker for the power wrested from them by Margaret Thatcher, and the America-loving old pro who showed them what they will be missing when he steps down, followed by a week mingling with the New Tory crowd of hoodie-hugging (young British muggers typically wear hoods), green-hued, America-haters (well not haters, just folks looking to put distance between themselves and America) is an education I commend to all serious students of the U.S.-U.K. relationship.
At these Labour and Conservative party conferences you get to see the leaders up close and personal and can talk to the delegates who turn out to cheer, drink themselves into late-night stupors, and, in their many serious moments, attend the meetings at which issues from green taxes to the allocation of health care budgets are debated.
The Labour conference, of course, featured an attempt at the reconciliation of the occupant of No. 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair, and the inhabitant of No. 11, his chancellor, Gordon Brown--an effort that failed so gloriously as to keep the sessions interesting, a feature lacking at the Tory love-in. Brown tried to persuade the crowd that Tony Blair is a bosom buddy, for whom he has nothing but the highest regard. Not a bad try by the man who just a few days before concocted--or at least failed to abort--a plot to force Blair to hit the speech circuit as a private citizen. He had almost persuaded the credulous until Mrs. Blair, Cherie Booth in her professional lawyer's life, was heard by a Bloomberg reporter to say, "That's a lie," which the Downing Street spin doctors tried to persuade the press was really, "I must get by." No sale. So Blair, taking the rostrum the next day, decided to make lemonade out of that lemon by announcing that at least he doesn't have to worry about his wife running off with the bloke next door.
In probably the best speech of his life, Blair affirmed his intention to use the remaining months in office--he more or less voluntarily steps down in May or June--to continue his efforts to convert the educational and health care systems from producer-controlled dinosaurs into consumer-controlled service providers fit to serve a 21st-century welfare state. The unions, who continue to control the largest number of votes and provide the largest portion of the party's financing, were unimpressed, and passed a resolution to roll back the Blairite reforms. But the gent's not for turning, as the unions well knew. Their real goal is to let Gordon Brown know they expect him to ignore his previous pledges to continue these reforms and instead revert to the Scottish socialist they all believe--or are hoping--he really is.
More important to this American, Blair once again explained to a hostile audience what the war on terror is all about, and how destructive of British interests it would be to pull away from the United States. The party's fury with their leader for supporting Bush and Israel during the Lebanon war would under ordinary circumstances have resulted in a round of boos, but since Blair is on his way out, Labourites contented themselves with sullen silence.
The Tories are less eager to affirm their faith in the special relationship. Yes, Britain and America share values. But there's no need to be "slavish" followers of American foreign policy, as if Washington had ever sought such a one-sided relationship.
No matter. The goal of the new Tory leadership is to demonstrate how different the party is from the version that suffered three successive electoral defeats. So no more toadying to America, an "even-handed" policy in dealing with Palestinians and Israelis, and forget about tax cuts. Instead there are pledges to increase spending on the already overmanned National Health Service, attacks on business for selling fattening chocolate-covered oranges, approval of gay marriage and single motherhood, and green policies that might, just might, include taxes on cheap airplane flights. (A resolution calling for just such an elitist measure was barely defeated.)
Most important, the new leadership, a duo of shadow prime minister David Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne, presented fresh, youthful faces (Cameron turned 40 last week), designed to distinguish the New Tories from the mean old party of Margaret Thatcher. So smiles and sunshine all around, and no policies of any substance lest the party faithful and the electorate find something they might not like.
Both parties brought in American heavy hitters to lend some international credibility. Bill Clinton, introduced by Blair as a former president and rock star, bathed the crowd in what one delegate called "warm fudge": He loved them, they loved him back. The Tories countered with John McCain--"Labour had a past president, we have a future one"--a man made of sterner stuff than Clinton. The Arizona senator delivered a call to honesty, honor, duty, and commitment to a long war to defeat Islamic terrorism. The crowd, most of whom had never heard of McCain, loved that part of his talk, delivered after arid stretches apologizing for his age and praising Ronald Reagan in the manner of a seeker after votes in the Iowa primary.
We are entering an interesting time in British politics. Blair, who has dominated the stage for a decade, is half way out the door; the Tories, who have spent that decade warring on each other, have now left that self-defeating practice to Labour, and are on the upswing behind new, young, and emollient leaders. Cameron leads Brown by double digits in the latest poll.
Oddly, America's interests have been better served by leftish Labour: Even though the majority of its members are antiwar, its present and prospective leader understand that we are in what will be a long war with Islamic terrorists, and are more firmly wedded to the special relationship with America than are the "Cameroons." Perhaps the fact that Gordon Brown, Blair's almost certain successor, has almost 20 years on David Cameron and therefore comes closer to remembering minor skirmishes like World War II explains the difference. We do know, after all, that Brown is a serious student of history, while Cameron is a former public relations man unencumbered by the weight of that history. But should he succeed in trading opposition for office, he will be unable to avoid having history thrust upon him.
This article originally appeared in the October 23, 2006, edition of the Weekly Standard.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.