And Now: The British Election

Monday, April 30, 2001

With many Americans not yet having recovered from last fall’s presidential election, few have noticed that our closest ally, Britain, is getting ready for its own national election. British politics is always fascinating and sometimes provides a lead, as when Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, a year and a half before Ronald Reagan. The ideas known as "Thatcherism" still heavily influence politics in both countries.

Britain’s general election should prove quite instructive for Americans. The opposition Conservative Party is hoping to win using President Bush’s theme of "compassionate conservatism." But at this point, political analysts expect the Conservatives to fail by a wide margin. Why? What currently makes British politics so different from American politics?

Both countries followed similar paths after World War II, first by embracing the managed economy and the welfare state and then by accepting the new conservatism of Thatcher and Reagan, which produced significant political change in each country.

Bill Clinton and then Tony Blair, however, masterfully led Democratic and Labour Party resurgences. Taking up electorally attractive Reagan-Thatcher conservative agendas, Clinton and Blair succeeded in arguing that only the Democratic and Labour Parties could govern conservatively with a caring face. Republicans and British Conservatives were politically outflanked. Further, prosperity in both countries made it even more difficult for them to regain power.

George W. Bush’s election, however close, was thus indeed remarkable. Many aspects of the campaign went his way, but a key element was how skillfully he used the theme of compassionate conservatism to turn the tables on the Democrats and win over just enough independent voters.

Compassionate conservatism should therefore be a good recipe for British Conservatives. Indeed, British Conservatives have been pressing this message for the last year. But as of now it looks like Tony Blair and Labour will enjoy a big win. Why?

The answer may well be a matter of timing. One of the many factors that decide elections is the political life cycle; elected governments often become old and vulnerable. In part, the political life cycle hurt the Republicans in 1992 after their 12 years in the White House. Furthermore, the Conservatives in Britain showed a lack of ideas, talent, integrity, and just plain "steam" after 18 straight years in power—and were defeated overwhelmingly in 1997.

Conversely, the Republicans in 2000 showed their hunger and zest to return to power after eight years out, while the Democrats were clearly less energized. But the Conservatives in Britain, who have been out of power less than four years, are still squabbling among themselves about philosophy, policies, and leadership. They look like 1996 Republicans, whereas Tony Blair’s Labour Party is imitating Democrats and Bill Clinton in 1996.

We are always learning more about politics, and Britain’s upcoming election may offer another lesson. Of the many factors affecting elections, the political life cycle can be very important, especially when policy differences between the political parties are slight, as they have been in this era.