Best in Show

On May 2, 2005, Tony Blair's government will begin its ninth year of running the United Kingdom. That tenure makes Blair the nation's longest-sitting Labour leader in the history of his party, and one of the longest of any party in the modern history of the nation. Indeed, Blair, who turns 52 on May 6, is the longest-sitting leader of a leftist party of any sizable Western nation today (German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat also still in power, came to office a year after Blair).

For any leader even nominally on the left, such longevity is a remarkable accomplishment. Yet Blair is vilified by much of the U.K. left, and if his legacy were written today, he would be remembered primarily for one policy, which was anticipated by absolutely no one when Labour was elected in 1997: his support for George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Blair's embrace of the war and subsequent occupation is conspicuous in part because it goes against Labour's once-reflexive pacifism; Prime Minister Harold Wilson, for example, famously declined to support America's military adventures in Vietnam. But Blair's position also stands out because so few Britons agree with it. The British people are not as virulently anti-war as, say, the Spanish or the French. But they're not far off. Support for the war has reached desperately low levels: A January poll found just 29 percent of the British public saying that military action in Iraq was the right thing to do, with 53 percent against.

The public opposition is not simply a disagreement over strategy or the cost of war. It also expresses a sense of embarrassment, even disgust, at the notion that Blair has sold the country to a dangerous, right-wing American president. British political cartoonists -- even in papers, like The Times, that supported the war -- routinely draw Blair as a loving poodle at Bush's side, an image that clearly irritates Blair. The sense of shame has been amplified by photos of British soldiers (some now convicted) humiliating Iraqi prisoners in a manner indistinguishable from those at Abu Ghraib. A series of official inquiries into the falsification of intelligence prior to the war did nothing to convince the public; indeed, it merely deepened cynicism about a system that seems completely unaccountable for putting British lives on the line.

Three days after the Blair government begins its ninth year in power, the prime minister will put himself before the voters and ask for five more. It's safe to say that if Blair were running for re-election in just about any other large European country, he would be tossed out based solely on his support for the U.S. military action. And yet it's impossible to find anyone in this country, except for the occasional ranting cab driver, who seriously believes that Blair will lose. A handful of recent polls have indicated that the race will be tight, or even that the Tories held a slight edge. Labour could well lose a few dozen seats, but there are many reasons why a Blair defeat seems quite unlikely.

* * *

How does Tony Blair keep his job? His staying power boils down to two decisive factors that may not be evident from abroad. The first is the economy. If he chose to quote his forerunner Harold Macmillan, Blair could tell the British public that “most of our people have never had it so good,” and it would be damned hard to refute. There are 2 million more jobs in the United Kingdom since Labour took office. In a country with nearly 30 million jobs, that's a massive difference. It's nearly impossible to exaggerate how different this economy feels, how much more widespread prosperity is compared with the Margaret Thatcher–John Major era. The unemployment rate, at 4.7 percent, is the lowest it has been in decades; at least in the southern part of the country, it's very hard to imagine that there is anyone who genuinely wants to work who can't find at least a part-time job. Compare that with Germany and France, where the unemployment rates remain stubbornly in the double digits. Capital flows more freely and plentifully than ever before.

As Blair never tires of reminding the House of Commons, interest rates under Thatcher were an unimaginable 15 percent during one year, and stayed at 10 percent for four years; now they are below 5 percent. By American standards, there is no public debt to speak of. When he introduced his national budget in mid-March, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown triumphantly began his speech to the House of Commons by saying, “Britain is today experiencing the longest period of sustained economic growth since records began in the year 1701.”

Perhaps more important than statistics is the “wealth effect,” the fact that the British today simply have more money and live better than their parents did. Widespread homeownership -- in 1971, fewer than half of Britons owned their homes; today 70 percent do -- and an almost frighteningly buoyant real-estate market in the last decade have most Britons today feeling much wealthier than they ever have. The average sale price for a home in the United Kingdom has nearly tripled since 1996. The boom in European discount airlines like easyJet and Ryanair means that even working-class Britons can easily afford holidays in Spain or Italy. And it works the other way, too: Tourism to the United Kingdom reached an all-time high last year and is expected to grow again this year.

How much of this does Blair get credit for, and how much should he? For all of Thatcher's wretched excesses, there were structural accomplishments during her tenure that had to be made, including the privatization of British Telecom (1984), British Gas (1986), and British Airways (completed in 1987). Taken collectively, those steps pumped tens of billions of pounds of private capital into the British economy, unlocking value and forcing competitiveness onto converted monopolies.

Other actions were more debatable. Certainly I thought that moving from public housing to private housing would have disastrous effects, but today that policy must be viewed as a success. (Yes, personal debt is also up, but then it would be, because homes are worth more; on balance, homeownership has been a boon.) Indeed, Paul Baines, a lecturer at Middlesex University who also works with the influential Market & Opinion Research International polling institute, believes that homeownership had a profound political effect. “Thatcher gave them the right to buy their own homes,” he says, “and that made temporary Tories out of a lot of people who would traditionally have voted for Labour.” Now, they can own homes and vote Labour. So Blair has been lucky to inherit some aspects of Thatcher's legacy, even if he had the misfortune to inherit her more damaging legacies in the areas of transportation, education, and health (about which more later).

But it's not all legacy. Blair and, more importantly, Brown have made some very deft moves as well. They took office preaching a Clintonite triangulation, a “third way” between the free market and a state-managed economy, but their most vital move has not been ideological. It's been procedural. They rationalized the governance of the economy by splitting the roles of the Bank of England, which until 1998 functioned like a combination of the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Treasury Department. That has allowed the Bank of England to focus its attention on monetary policy, which it has managed very well: In addition to the economic miracles noted above, there is essentially no inflation in this country.

The average voter may or may not give Blair too much credit for his economic performance, but that almost doesn't matter. The point is that there is no real economic argument for turning him out. Max Hastings, a veteran British journalist and historian, recently made the point succinctly. “If most voters were moved by principle,” he explained, “they could see many reasons to opt for change. They are not, however. They are motivated by how they feel about their own lives on polling day.” Taken as a whole, the 26 million or so British citizens who will go to the polls soon should be feeling quite well.

Does that mean that Britain is paradise? Not by a long shot. Britons have to put up with a train system that is expensive, routinely late, and occasionally deadly. This may not seem important to Americans, whose national rail system (Amtrak) faces continual political attack. But much more than the United States, this is a nation in which a huge number of workers commute by rail to a fairly small number of metropolitan centers. Following a fatal train crash in Hatfield in 2000, the punctuality of the trains -- never great, thanks to aging infrastructure and the lack of central maintenance -- plummeted. One recent study showed that since 1997, more than a billion train journeys have been delayed. On many commonly used train lines, one in every four trains is delayed -- double or triple the rate, depending on the line, since 1997. The London Underground is the worst major metropolitan transportation system in the developed world, and almost certainly one of the most expensive -- a one-way ticket in central London today costs a minimum of £2, or about $3.75.

Although there have been some recent improvements in the National Health Service (NHS), it remains a very cruel joke. Once the pride of the nation and held up internationally as a stellar example of socialized medicine that works, the NHS has devolved into a morass of long waiting lists and shockingly subpar care. An American friend of mine -- who, it should be said, was pleased with how the NHS handled the birth of her first child -- recently had an MRI that determined that her colon was disturbingly thick. Even though the doctor conceded that she needed a colonoscopy, and even though there is a history of colon cancer in her family, she was told that there was no way she could get an NHS colonoscopy in the next three months, and possibly not for as long as a year. (She got a private one for £1,200; naturally, she has no health insurance, because there's national health!) On a near-daily basis, Britain's tabloid press is filled with horror stories about patients left on trolleys in the hallways of hospitals, and filthy wards in which strains of “killer bugs” take the lives of patients.

* * *

But these woes have virtually no effect on Blair's longevity factor, for a reason that is based on one of the oldest maxims in politics: You can't beat someone with no one, and there is no one who can effectively translate Britain's problems into an anti-Blair vote. Following the defeat of Major in 1997, in which Labour took a staggering 179-vote majority in the House of Commons, the Conservative Party has been run like a revolving trivia contest -- a succession of leaders whose tenures have been so brief and personalities so undistinguished (and indistinguishable) that it can be hard to recall their names. The party said it knew what it was doing when it unceremoniously dumped its leader William Hague, the wry man whom Blair crushed in June 2001. Hague's successor, Iain Duncan Smith, didn't even make it to the next general election. Now the party is led by Michael Howard, and the level of overall support remains almost exactly what it was under Hague. Meanwhile, membership continues to shrivel, literally and figuratively: The average Tory is 59 years old, and only 15 percent of its membership is under the age of 44. Yet the party seems completely oblivious to the consequences of its graying. “The Conservatives' choice of Michael Howard was a disaster for young people,” says David Baker, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Warwick.

The reason the Tories can't recruit new members is exactly the same as the reason they can't beat Blair: On all the issues on which Blair might be vulnerable -- the war, health, education, and transportation -- the Tories have no credibility. They supported the war, and no matter how much carping they do now, everyone knows that if Howard were prime minister, he'd be sucking up to Bush just as much as Blair does, possibly more. On all the other issues, whenever the Tories criticize Blair about the pitiful state of the nation, he has only to talk about decades of disinvestment under the Conservatives and the bad old days of inflation and unemployment. Labour has boiled this down to a blisteringly simple three-word campaign slogan: “Forward, not back.”

The rail system is a perfect metaphor for the political state of the nation. Everyone knows it's awful, but the vast majority of beleaguered commuters don't blame the horrible trains on Blair; they blame the Tories who privatized the old British Rail system (unlike the Telecom, Gas, and Airways privatizations, this one has not worn well). Some labor union leaders have proposed renationalizing the railway, and, indeed, delegates at the 2004 Labour Party conference voted overwhelmingly to do so. Blair's cabinet is opposed to renationalization, but, ironically, the prime minister benefits from the movement advocating it.

It doesn't matter that there's essentially no chance that will happen; the alternative -- turning the trains back over to the Tories -- is simply unthinkable.

There is a theoretically viable third party, the Liberal Democrats, which currently holds 55 seats in Parliament, more than any third party in the United Kingdom since the 1930s. Its leader, Charles Kennedy, is intelligent, affable, and mediagenic by Britain's modest standards (perhaps too much so; he is sometimes denigrated as “Chat Show Charlie”). The party grew out of a merger between the old Liberals and the short-lived Social Democratic Party of the 1980s as an attempt to forge a center-left party that did not have Labour's socialist baggage. (Keep in mind that until 1995, the constitution of the British Labour Party contained a clause adopted in 1918 calling for “the common ownership of the means of production.”) And yet it's a sign of where Blair has taken Labour that today the “centrist” Liberal Democrat Party often finds itself to the left of the government (the Iraq War is the most obvious example, but also on civil-liberties issues and the structure of the tax code).

But while the Liberal Democrats are a politically and intellectually intriguing party, there remains something irrelevant about them. Even their anti-war stance has a bit of Naderite marginality; I can't prove it with an opinion poll, but I think that even some Britons who deride Blair as a poodle would prefer a British prime minister who wields influence on the world stage to one who is isolated -- call it the vestigial desire of empire. The Liberal Democrats have pockets of strength -- in Scotland, some London neighborhoods, and the western counties -- and they hold key positions in local government. It's not impossible to imagine them becoming the second major party in the country, but true power is likely decades away.

* * *

All of this no doubt sounds strange to an American audience. How, in a conservative era, could a party calling itself conservative be in such shambles? Part of the answer is that the Conservatives aren't actually conservative. The Tories are, of course, conservative in some recognizable and important ways: They preach the gospel of lower taxes and, in most cases, reducing the overall size of government (although even there, they have to be hypercautious about not sending a message that they would spend less on health, transportation, and education). But Britain lacks entirely the streak of American conservatism that runs from the John Birch Society through Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and George W. Bush -- that peculiar blend of libertarianism, know-nothingism, and “Christian values.” There is no gun lobby in the United Kingdom; after the Dunblane shooting of 1996, Britain banned all but the tiniest of handguns -- and no one cared enough to oppose it. The only people who grumble about gun control are a small band of left-wing libertarians. Abortion is simply not an issue. There is some discussion in Britain of rolling back the legal limit for an abortion from 24 weeks to perhaps 22 or 20, but, tellingly, there is no difference between the stance taken by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. As for gay marriage, the United Kingdom passed a Civil Partnership Act in November 2004 -- just days after the issue, arguably, helped decide the U.S. election -- giving same-sex couples nearly identical rights to married heterosexuals; all the major parties supported it.

There is only one wild card in this election that could throw off all of the above analysis: immigration. As the former seat of an empire with extensive inroads into Asia and Africa, Britain attracts a large number of immigrants and asylum seekers. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but the perception is in many ways more important than the reality. According to a 2003 comprehensive survey, approximately 8 percent of the British population of 60 million was born outside the country. But if you ask Britons what percentage they think were born abroad, you get an average number three times as high: nearly 24 percent.

Not surprisingly, immigration is the issue that voters bring up in focus groups; it's the stuff of angry radio talk shows. The Tories tried to make an issue out of immigration in 2001, but it didn't stick. This time around, it has traction. The difference? Baines points to the accession of 10 mostly eastern European countries to the European Union last May, which theoretically means that Czechs, Poles, and Latvians can move to and work in the United Kingdom. “I think there is a real change,” he notes, “because there is a wider mix of ethnicities that people are not sure how to deal with.” For the moment, there is ample reason to believe that the Tories own the issue: One opinion poll in February found that voters prefer the Conservatives on immigration by about 8 percentage points. The party upped the ante that same month when it proposed that anyone seeking to live and work in the United Kingdom for 12 months or more would have to have tests, paid for by themselves in their home country, for HIV and tuberculosis.

But while the Tories have adroitly played the immigration issue in the months leading up to the actual campaign, all that Labour really needs to do is defuse the issue to the point where few voters use it to determine how they vote. Some of that strategy will depend on appealing to people's rational understanding of the issue. Britain is hardly alone in dealing with the complexities of an immigrant population that is not only larger than ever before but, thanks to a large Muslim component, trickier to assimilate. Blair and his cabinet will remind voters how critical immigrant workers are to the U.K. economy: At least 27 percent of the professionals working in the NHS are foreign-born. And just to make sure the issue doesn't boil over, Labour has already announced a system of filtering immigrants to accept only the most desirable. Using a plan based on Australia's, Labour has announced a points system that will evaluate those who seek to enter the country based on skills and economic need, impose spot fines on employers found to be using illegal labor, and move toward swifter deportation of those whose requests for asylum have failed.

And so this country, like so many Western democracies today, finds itself in a political limbo: There is much popular opposition to the government, but there is no practical opposition. British politics has more than its share of ridiculous issues, from massive demonstrations in defense of fox hunting to debates about whether or not people should be prosecuted for killing burglars who break into their homes. But silly issues don't swing national elections. If opposition to the war isn't enough to turn Blair out, it's because butter is ultimately more important than guns. Short of a Vietnam-level quagmire, an unpopular war does not appear to be enough to turn out the leader of a major Western nation with a healthy economy.

The tragic irony for Tony Blair, very much like it was for Bill Clinton, is that the price of political success seems to be that you don't get to do very much, outside of running a good economy and keeping the right wing at bay while stealing its more palatable ideas. A Blair adviser told me that the two things the prime minister would like to be remembered for historically are peace in Northern Ireland and committing Britain to the euro. The first one he'll probably get; it's a little rough around the edges but the framework is there. The second one I can't imagine he will. If he ever had the political capital to accomplish it, he lost it when he signed up for Iraq.

James Ledbetter is a senior editor at Time magazine, and has lived in London since 2000. He is currently working on a book about democracy.

You may also like