LONDON — British politics is now in a fluid state. The May 5 general election, which should have settled things, at least for four or five years, has unsettled everything in a very puzzling way.
On the winning Labour side, an obviously tired Tony Blair has seen his personal stance vilified by his own supporters — on the grounds that he misleadingly exaggerated the case for invading Iraq alongside the Americans — and his position as party leader and prime minister weakened by the growingly visible ambitions of his colleague, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, to replace him.
In more normal times, his comfortable parliamentary majority (67 over all other parties and 159 over his main rivals, the Conservatives) after Labour’s first-ever third straight victory ought to have given him triumphant security in his post. He is young by political standards and could theoretically serve the country for years to come.
But these are not normal times. The media dominate the political scene these days, and the impatient media have grown tired of Blair. He has, so to speak, gone out of fashion.
His home policies are producing improvements only very slowly, in health provisions and education, for example, while the centerpiece of his foreign policy — an attempt to be simultaneously at the heart of the European Union while remaining America’s best friend — is falling apart. Deservedly or undeservedly, his resignation has become a matter of daily media discussion and he will get no peace until he confirms that he is leaving.
On the Conservative opposition side, the situation is even more unstable. At first, the Conservatives were content that they had improved their position and placed themselves favorably for a further advance to victory at the next election in four or five years’ time.
Their leader, Michael Howard, was adjudged to have fought robustly, even though the Conservative campaign was full of truly classic mistakes and notably lacked profound or illuminating qualities. In particular, the Conservatives let themselves be dragged into an absurdly detailed auction with Labour over public spending. They failed to demonstrate how a low-tax, low-regulation society could in the end produce better social results, more fairness and better public services than old-style, state-centered, tax-financed systems.
Nevertheless, the hope was that Howard would stay on to consolidate the opposition, at least for a year or so. Then came the election bombshell. Howard clearly felt he had had enough and stated that he would be going within a matter of months.
Instantly the struggle to succeed him was ignited and will continue through the summer. The thinking that the political right in Britain desperately needs — how to redefine and then capture the center-forward ground of British society — is now bound to take second place to the jostling for power as the contenders go through their paces.
But perhaps this was always unavoidable. The Conservatives are only now beginning to recover from the trauma of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher 15 years ago. The Thatcher effect may have transformed Britain, but it divided the Conservatives deeply between free-market radicals and entrenched “conservative” Conservatives.
Such a polarized division was quite fatal for a party of the right. Years of subtle healing and weaving together of opposing philosophies have been necessary ever since to unite the different wings again. This is at last happening. Even on the most contentious issue of all in British politics, which is the relationship with the rest of Europe, the old polarities — for or against membership in the European Union — are giving way to the new reality: The Union is transforming itself into a looser and more flexible network and that the Franco-German motor that used to drive it has stalled.
Meanwhile, the facts of the world — notably the shift in the global center of gravity to the rising Asian powers — are forcing all Europeans to look outward again, rather than inward.
Throughout Europe the political right is beginning to show that it can do better than the left in reconciling the great dilemmas of the age: between security and individual freedom, between central efficiency and local identity, between globalism and national patriotism, between the need to lead and the need to listen.
But in the British case, the personality has yet to be found that can handle and voice these ultramodern concerns. The new leader of this kind of moderate but thoughtful right may appear from any direction, be of either sex and come from any age group, young or old. One of Howard’s key new appointments as “shadow” finance minister is only 33.
In the past, Britain has been well ruled and led by very young men (William Pitt) or very old ones (William Gladstone, Winston Churchill). What matters is not age but intuitive power, a readiness to locate, identify and then set fire to the spirit of the age. The British General Election has not solved this problem, but maybe it has set in motion the processes that will eventually do so.
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