Posted: Jun 10, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--If Britain's election had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it weeks ago. The mismatch culminated in the most passionless landslide in British history, but it may have presaged a stormy period that will be punctuated by a cymbal-crash election by 2006. Blair won partly because British voters believe, peculiarly, that a statist party is most apt to succeed in improving the state's disgraceful delivery of services, from medical care to transportation, that it has no business delivering. And because the public had no appetite for the great debate that cannot be avoided much longer--the debate about the transfer of sovereignty to the European Union--the vacuity of this election guaranteed that the next one will be among the most consequential in the history of British democracy. Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party has won a second term. Nothing notable there: Almost every government since 1945 has been re-elected. What is remarkable is how thoroughly the terms of debate have been reversed in Britain. For four decades Labour bore the burden of proving that its plans for increased social spending did not entail increased taxes. This year the Conservatives proposed only a derisory tax cut, and disavowed a spokesman who suggested a larger one, because tax cuts are considered threats to social programs. So much for the theory that as Western publics become richer, they become less addicted to public services. And this election completed the transformation of general elections into ``presidential" elections, in which the issue is framed not as which party should control the House of Commons but which leader should live at 10 Downing Street. In 1997, after 18 years of Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Labour administered to the Conservatives the worst thrashing, in terms of seats lost, since 1906--even though Labour won fewer votes than Conservatives won under Major in 1992. And Labour won in 1997 by promising to adhere to Major's tight spending ceilings for two years. So Labour won last time by implicitly promising not to undo Margaret Thatcher's most important achievements (taming labor unions, thereby emancipating the Labour Party and making it electable, and emphasizing wealth-creation over redistribution). It was said that Gladstone desired prosperity for the people primarily to make the people more succulent targets of taxation. Blair similarly seems to think the point of prosperity is to enable the state to tax. Still, the Labour Party in 1983 ran a kamikaze campaign as an unreconstructed socialist advocate of nationalizing the ``commanding heights" of the economy. In 1997, Blair immediately freed the Bank of England from political dictation, a rightward swerve Thatcher never took. During his first term Blair multiplied political institutions, creating a Welsh assembly and a Scottish parliament, but he won a second term in an election in which the turnout--58 percent, the lowest since 1918--indicated declining interest in the political realm. And Blair's re-election comes amid collapsing confidence in the public services he champions, such as the National Health Service, under which patients can wait two years to see a psychologist, and six years for a hip operation. Major spent one-third more on the NHS than Thatcher did, and things got worse, which indicates that socialized medicine is not fixable. And because reforming the public sector would mean disrupting Blair's base in public sector employees, he will fail to do the only thing voters just gave him a mandate to do. And now comes the question of surrendering the national currency, the next step toward submerging national identity and surrendering self-determination to a European superstate. The Conservative leader, William Hague, uttering vacuities like ``In Europe but not run by Europe," may have stressed European issues just enough to make the election seem like a semi-referendum on them, thereby emboldening the cautious Blair. But Blair cannot avoid a real referendum on adopting the euro. That referendum could be the Conservatives' means of resuscitation. Conservatives would be worthier advocates of British nationhood if they carried more constituencies outside of England: on Thursday they won only one seat in Scotland--an improvement over 1997--and none in Wales. Nevertheless, the inexorability of the European Union's self-aggrandizement will force them to find out whether nationalism is a majority persuasion or merely a niche market for a boutique party. An African-American spiritual warns, (BEG ITAL)The Lord gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time. In Britain's next election, bedrock issues of sovereignty--meaning self-government, and national self-respect--should restore the heat to British politics.