CONASON: Thatcherism's Waterloo

Joe Conason Thatcherism's Waterloo: Truth Was a Casualty If you learned everything you know about the British election from American newspapers, then you don't know much, and much of what you do know is wrong. When American pundits venture to explain the politics of other lands, even English-speaking ones, the levels of ignorance and narcissism often are appalling. But this time, they were amplified still more by an obsessive impulse to compare Tony Blair with Bill Clinton so that both could be trashed. Mesmerized by a personality they affected to disdain, the American sages covering the campaign masked their laziness with a phony sophistication that was in fact mere cynicism. The result was that they, and presumably their readers, missed the meaning of the Conservative Party's May Day disaster, the most decisive repudiation of right-wing dogma a Western democracy has ever delivered. Substituted for journalistic insight was a stream of chatter about Mr. Blair's background, his wife and children, his Oxford pedigree, his religious feelings, his smile and even his business attire. Such entertaining observations displaced any attempt to analyze what the Labor Party leadership -- which, by the way, includes several other figures of significance -- actually plans to do. And if the easy Blair-equals-Clinton formula required snipping away inconvenient facts and complexities, who on these shores would ever know? There are various parallels and connections between Mr. Blair and Mr. Clinton, of course, just as every cliche of conventional wisdom contains a bit of truth. In some ways, Mr. Blair's struggle to modernize the Labor Party does resemble Mr. Clinton's political strategy, particularly with respect to winning public confidence on issues of fiscal responsibility, public safety and welfare reform. There are similarities, too, in their views about education, unemployment and wage stagnation. For the British electorate, however, the importance of Labor's triumph had little to do with the supposed mimicry of anything American. They wanted to throw out the Tories. If voting Labor would achieve that end, as it did in the overwhelming majority of districts, they voted Labor; if that purpose was better served by voting Liberal Democrat, that was the ballot they cast. In one "safe" Conservative constituency, where an independent candidate seemed to have the best chance of unseating an ultra-rightist accused of accepting bribes, they chose the maverick by a large margin. In other words, the notion that this election ratified the regime of Margaret Thatcher--as suggested by a columnist for The New York Times reaching for a "big idea" well beyond his grasp--is nonsense. The British public understands perfectly what Thatcherism is. They rejected the former Prime Minister's 18th-century concept of democracy, exemplified by the poll tax. They rejected her brutal libertarianism as well, summed up in her famous remark that "there is no such thing as society." With the surprise defeat of her tough young heir-apparent, former Defense Minister Michael Portillo, her lingering influence was flushed away. Thanks to C-SPAN's transmission of the BBC coverage, we could watch over here as Mr. Portillo and dozens of his colleagues faced the verdict of an unforgiving people. The delightful moment when Sir Buster Blimp, Tory, was forced to congratulate Ms. Rose Red, Laborite, repeated in town after town, never lost its charm. But in the wake of this polite carnage, what kind of government took power? Again, the American press missed the story. Preoccupied by Labor's decision to drop its ancient vow to nationalize the means of production--an offense mainly to true believers in a defunct religion--our pundits neglected to mention the more realistic but still radical ideas put forward by Mr. Blair and his party. You might therefore be surprised to find out that Labor is pledged to pass Britain's first minimum wage, which would fatten the paychecks of nearly a fifth of the country's workforce. Or that it proposes a windfall tax on the privatized utilities, whose new managers' enormous salaries have provoked public outrage, in order to fund a $5 billion youth employment program. Or that it has sworn to save the National Health Service by removing the layers of bureaucracy imposed by the Tories and directing those funds to patient care. Or that it has drawn up a set of constitutional reforms that include a Bill of Rights, a Freedom of Information Law and the abolition of hereditary peerages in the House of Lords. Or that within a few weeks, it will sign Britain to the European Union's social chapter, giving new protections to British workers and families. For those ordinary Brits, the contrast between Labor and Conservative was sufficiently distinct to justify the burial of Thatcherism and its heirs in a landslide of historic magnitude. But then they're hardly as clever as a Times Op-Ed columnist.

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