September 25, 2000
For one of two major parties to get a single figure lead in the opinion polls may not seem like a major event, but welcome to England in the last year of the twentieth century. It is hard to underestimate how unpopular the Conservatives were. After "White Wednesday", when the pound was sent crashing out of the precursor of the Euro, the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Tories never had an opinion poll lead until last week. Between 1992 and now the Tories have been permanently behind. They were not behind by just a few percentage points, but by sometimes more than 20%. Eight solid years and Labour's been ahead, but no more.
The present Tory lead has gone as high as 5%, so cracking open the champagne is premature. The fuel blockades, and even more the Government's arrogant response to it brought a merciless spotlight on two of the Government's more annoying characteristics, its willingness to tax and its inability to treat the electorate as adults. Over time the Conservatives will make mistakes; an admission by the Tory leader that he occasionally drank up to 14 pints of beer when he was a teenager, was treated as a national emergency by the State owned BBC. The Government will also bribe people back to supporting them, admittedly with their own money. The likelihood is still of a Labour victory (although if the Tories pull it out of the hat I will flaunt this column as a showpiece of my powers of political prediction). However, it is no longer a certainty.
The Conservatives have not prepared for government yet. They have punched above their weight in mid term elections, showing that their core vote is solidifying and getting active at the same time that Labour's is losing interest. Nevertheless, the common expectation is that they will lose the next election. The plan is to win a majority of English seats and then to win a referendum on adopting the Euro. The position of England is terribly odd, Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs can decide on all British internal matters, but English MPs can not do the same for their Celtic brothers. Couple that with 85% of the population and a position where they are subsidising the Celtic fringes you may see this as a potentially explosive situation. It does not matter now, Labour has a majority of English seats, but what happens if they do not have an English majority, a situation that has greeted every previous Labour government but two? Similarly, a vote against accepting the Euro will have an immensely destabilising effect on British politics, totally de-legitimising almost any European initiative. A No vote can be used like a hammer on all pro-European moves for at least a decade, with the constant refrain that "the British said no to that". By the end of a second term Britain, or more accurately most of England, will be ungovernable.
So the Conservatives have all but written off an election victory, does that mean we should? No, it would pay to look at what type of change the present Conservative Party would make to British foreign policy. What does happen if we all wake up to a Tory victory?
The first problem will be with Europe. Britain is with the best will in the world a destabilising influence in a federating Europe. When the will is not so good it could be destructive. The current Tory mantra "In Europe, not run by Europe" is deceptively vague. It is effective, as it directly addresses the electorate's schizophrenic attitude that they want to stay British but do not want to be left on their own. It is obviously contradictory, it is absurd to imagine that one can belong to a blatantly power hungry institution such as the EU is while not surrendering sovereignty. Many Eurosceptics see this contradiction as a deliberate ploy to sell Britain down the river. I see it as the opposite. Although not doubting a politician's capacity for treachery, I happen to believe that politicians are more interested in power in their own country, than in unworkable schemes for international governance. A less than popular conservative government will have to play every card it has, and will not stint on playing the British card, especially as those Conservatives with pro-European scruples seem to be on the party margins. Hospitals may be opened or taxes cut on the strength of reducing Britain's massive net contribution to the EU. Some of the most obviously unpopular directives from Brussels may be flamboyantly over turned, with all attempted bullying being welcomed as a chance to portray their party as patriotic. For domestic British reasons, the whole European construct will be thrown into turmoil.
How will Europe cope with a maverick, but powerful, member? In the end it can not, Britain will have to either bend to Europe or leave it. However, in the short term the governing classes in France and Germany will be distracted by the latest example of Albion's perfidy. The tricky balancing act of federating at home while expanding eastwards will be thrown into doubt, as will the united stance on trade. The European Union is not really felt outside Europe, but its disability could free up places like Russia and Serbia and could lose America both a cat's paw and a potential rival, at least until Britain is thrown out.
There is a common feeling in Britain that it is impossible for Britain to go it alone. While this is rubbish, Britain needs to accept her limits and can live perfectly peaceably with her neighbours. However, a perception that we must be led is pervasive. If Europe is not around whom do you think Britain will look to? While this will make little practical difference to the willingness of Britain to fight with America, it will mean that America will have a new calculation in economic issues, from trade to the use of the dollar. Whether America requites this love is to be seen.
One area where there will be a radical overhaul will be in Britain's armed forces. This is one area where America may actually see a disadvantage, in that Britain's military capacity will become less far-reaching. It is unlikely that the military spend will actually decrease in any meaningful sense, but the priorities may be different. The situation in Northern Ireland is likely to break down under whichever party, but it is more likely that the Conservatives will take an Irishman's life seriously, and so troops will probably be back in Northern Ireland. Similarly a number of troops in Western Europe, especially in Germany, are likely to be withdrawn as part of a disengagement with Europe, what they were doing there after the Russians had withdrawn is another questions. One of the areas over which the Conservatives have constantly been sniping at the present government is the state of the Territorial Army. This "home guard" has been effectively re-made into a reserve of technicians for the army, and radically cut in numbers. There is also the issue of the under-equipment of all the armed forces, leading to the farcical sight of naval officers on training exercises shouting "bang" when a shell is supposed to hit, so as not to waste real shells. Even the smallest effort to reverse this will detract from foreign commitments, even if the Conservatives believe in them.
Indeed the revival of the national interest has been one of the bright spots of Tory thinking in opposition. Although few Tories openly opposed the Kosovo bombing, the level of unease in the grassroots was palpable. Why precisely where British troops there? This unease was articulated when British troops went into East Timor, and later Sierra Leone. The spokesman for defence, Iain Duncan Smith, has a reputation as a rather intelligent right winger and one able to think in terms of national interest. A conservative government, looking around for tax cuts and not willing to flirt with unpopularity when troops come home in body bags, will be far less taken in by the siren voices of empire and global responsibility.
It's too early to write about a Conservative victory, despite the great risks a narrow defeat would probably do the party far more good in the longer term by setting Labour up as an unpatriotic and anti-English party. However, those of us who want a sane foreign policy rooted in the national interest rather than ideological fantasies, must look to the right as the lesser of the two evils. Nevertheless, we must prepared to be bitterly disappointed if we expect to have all our troops and treasure back home any time soon.
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