LONDON--Britain's Conservative Party has been drubbed in the last 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 War--relations 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 Britain's third party, behind not only Labor but the Liberal Democrats, who are on Labor's left.
In 1997, after 18 years in power, the Conservatives suffered their worst 20th- century defeat. This June's election took place in conditions which The Daily Telegraph called unprecedented since before the First World War--low inflation, low unemployment, rising living standards. And Labor matched Margaret Thatcher's 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 seats--just one in Scotland, none in Wales.
Nevertheless, the Conservative Party, the world's oldest party, which over the last 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 convince 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 Eurosceptic, favors the ``repatriation'' of some powers Britain has ceded to the EU.
The Eurosceptics' 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.
Eurosceptics speak of the Europhiles' support for Britain's surrender of independence as ``the crime of Vichy.'' They warn of a peacetime revolution comparable to that of 1688, but this time a revolution (BEG ITAL)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 year's 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 EU's 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 EU's 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 voters--the deterioration of public services, particularly in health, transportation and education. The Conservatives did not lose because the public favors Britain 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 platform--``the longest suicide note in history''--included 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.