May 04, 2005

The British Election

"Great Britain has lost an empire and has not found a role."

Dean Acheson stirred up a trans-Atlantic controversy in late 1962 by making a speech containing this observation, which was cruel, painful, and completely true. Part of Tony Blair's problem right now is that it still is.

I haven't posted on the British election before now mostly because I suspect it will turn primarily on domestic and economic issues, as most elections do. About these I have only one not terribly original observation, which is that having long since decided that Thatcherism was no ideology for gentlemen the Tories are stuck with "me, too-ism" and "yes, but-ism." You only win elections on that sort of platform if your opposition is an obvious failure or enmeshed in a particularly lurid scandal of some kind, and Blair is neither. So at this writing Blair's Labor Party is expected to win easily, though perhaps not as easily as it did four years ago.

Blair is the object of much discontent over foreign policy, primarily for his leadership in the Iraq war. Let me say that I think his critics are perfectly sincere in saying that what they object to is Blair having exaggerated the former Iraqi government's weapons of mass destruction programs and shifted his rationalization for Britain's involvement in the war. I also think their discontent has deeper roots than that.

Blair, to his credit, has his own ideas of what Britain's world role ought to be -- a champion of freedom, a foe of poverty and disease (particularly in Africa) and an advocate for the global environment, more or less in that order. It's not an unworthy vision, nor does it represent a radical departure from that of earlier British Prime Ministers, particularly Thatcher. Thatcher, though, had two great advantages that Blair does not. One was a familiar enemy, the Soviet Union that only dissolved the year after Thatcher left office. The other was the Falklands War.

Blair close collaboration with the United States, especially during the Presidency of the very unpopular George Bush, has inevitably created some confusion over whether he is serving British interests or American ones. His answer -- and that of every other Prime Minister since Churchill, with the possible exception of Edward Heath -- would be that these are not inconsistent. But there is no getting around the fact that British forces would never have gone into Iraq except at the side of the Americans. Thatcher was able to inoculate herself against similar confusion by sending a task force to throw the Argentinians off British territory, an exclusively British operation for an exclusively British interest (for all that it could not have been carried out without discreet logistical cooperation by the United States). After the Falklands, no one accusing Thatcher of being an American toady could be believed.

But besides that, Blair inherited Britain's chief post-imperial liability: it isn't large enough, or rich enough, or strong enough to be decisive on any of the issues he thinks are important, not without enormous effort and sacrifice and in most cases not even with them. Britain can be America's junior partner, or it can be a scold on the subject of Western aid to poor countries, like a big Canada or Norway. Or it can be part of Europe.

There was little ambiguity in Thatcher's thinking about that last option: No. Blair's priorities make working with Europe (or at least trying to) unavoidable; anything closer than that will have to wait on events. He still sees Britain as a leader on his great causes, if not materially then morally.

The bottom line is that his causes are not really that dear to the British people today. They are for freedom, against poverty, and for the environment -- but if their Prime Minister is up for a crusade on any of these subjects, they are not. In important ways Britain is already part of Europe: an aging society, enjoying its prosperity, troubled by change, desirous above all of a quiet life.

This is not a criticism, merely an observation. British voters might well ask why British troops are in Iraq; whether Saddam Hussein's regime continued, even whether he eventually got and used weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors, was not a terribly high priority to the British public. Blair will find, in his third term as Prime Minister, that his other foreign priorities really aren't either. The public will go along with them, but without Blair's enthusiasm or moral fervor and certainly without any great willingness to disrupt their lives on behalf of his goals. He will probably retire before he reaches the point of being forced out by a people or party grown tired of him as Churchill and Thatcher were. But at least where foreign policy is concerned, tire of him they will.

You can only lead to the extent people are willing to follow you. Tony Blair has had his frustrations on that score with the Americans, with the French and other Europeans, but his greatest and growing problem is with his own people. Britain still has not found a role, and the one Blair wants for it British voters are just not that interested in.

Posted by at May 4, 2005 03:59 PM | TrackBack (5)

The other comment I'd make is that the English have long lived under the Shadow or terrorism in the form of Irish Republicans. I suspect, therefore neither 9/11 nor the WOT engenders anywhere near the passion in the UK as it has done for the citizens of the US.

By default that was always going to make Iraq a much more difficult assignment for Blair to sell to the English population - after all 9/11 didn't happen on English soil, and I would be surprised if Iraq was ever viewed as a threat to England in the way it was for the US.

Otherwise some insightful comments there Joseph!

Posted by: Aran Brown at May 5, 2005 02:53 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I just want to second Aran's praise. This completely agrees with what I am seeing in England, and explains it nicely. And your posts have definitely improved as well.

Posted by: sammler at May 5, 2005 04:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a discussion point,I would have thought the Irish terrorism Brits faced would have made them MORE rather than less concerned when it came to us.

Posted by: Patrick at May 6, 2005 11:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

But they've successfully managed the IRA terrorism. They probably think we're really overreacting.

Posted by: lindenen at May 7, 2005 10:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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