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George F. Will
Tories at the Continental Divide
Britains Conservative Party has been drubbed in the past two elections and now is riven by a leadership contest between two men diametrically opposed on the most important question this country has faced since the Second World Warrelations with the European Union. A commentator in the Spectator calls this an embarrassing period of menopausal Tory anguish as the party struggles to make sense of the modern world. There is even speculation that the Tories could wither into Britains third party, behind not only Labor but also the Liberal Democrats, who are on Labors left.
In 1997, after 18 years in power, the Conservatives suffered their worst 20th-century defeat. This Junes election took place in conditions the Daily Telegraph called unprecedented since before World War Ilow inflation, low unemployment, rising living standards. And Labor matched Margaret Thatchers Conservatives in winning consecutive elections with parliamentary majorities exceeding 100 seats. Prime Minister Tony Blair has the largest second-term majority in British history. The Conservatives now have only 166 of 659 seatsone in Scotland, none in Wales.
Nevertheless, the Conservative Party, the worlds oldest party, which over the past two centuries has held power more years than any party in the world, including most of the 20th century, could govern again after the next election. It must choose the right leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Then he must persuade the country, which already largely agrees with his views on the great constitutional question, to vote accordingly.
One candidate for leader, Kenneth Clarke, favors the further surrender of British sovereignty to the EU. Because about 80 percent of his party disagrees, making him leader would be, as a pundit has put it, akin to giving General Rommel command of the British Eighth Army on the eve of the battle of El Alamein. The other candidate, Duncan Smith, a Euroskeptic, favors the repatriation of some powers Britain has ceded to the EU.
The Euroskeptics rhetorical heat is rising, to a temperature not seen in U.S. politics since the Vietnam War. But so far it is the heat of rival elites, not the public.
Euroskeptics speak of the Europhiles support for Britains surrender of independence as the crime of Vichy. They warn of a peacetime revolution comparable to that of 1688, but this time a revolution against the supremacy of Parliament. Thatcher says Blair is committed to the progressive extinction of Britain as an independent nation, and indeed to British democracy as it has developed over the centuries. During this years election campaign, the Conservatives leader, William Hague, said, This could be the last general election of its kind, the last time that the people of the United Kingdom are able to elect a Parliament which is supreme in this country.
Hague may have exaggerated the pace, but not the aim, of the Europhiles agenda. For example, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, the EUs legislative and executive muscle, says the European Project, which is to create not just a superstate but a superpower, cannot be accomplished by the cooperation of the elected governments of the EUs member nations.
National governments, he says dismissively, are bound to their countries electoral cycles. Short-term domestic agendas can easily deflect them from considering the long-term interests of Europe as a whole. The implication is that those long-term interests must be defined by unelected elites emancipated from democratic controls.
The Conservatives lost in June because they were unconvincing about their solutions for the problems that currently preoccupy most votersthe deterioration of public services, particularly in health, transportation and education.
The Conservatives did not lose because the public favors Britains adopting the common currency, the euro, the next step toward a European superstate. Blair has promised to submit such a step to a referendum, and he cannot win it without engineering a dramatic reversal of public opinion.
The Conservatives were trounced just as Labor was when Thatcher won her second term, in 1983. However, Labor lost then because its platformthe longest suicide note in historyincluded what the public considered crackpot ideas (re-nationalization of industries, unilateral nuclear disarmament). The Conservatives challenge is to make the survival of self-government the election-turning issue.
If British voters cannot be made to care, the decline of self-government hardly matters. But the Conservatives attempt to make them care could, for the next few years, give Britain the most interesting politics in the North Atlantic community.