It is interesting how American and British political realities have mirrored each other the past few decades, with Britain lagging slightly behind—though only slightly, and not at the beginning.
In the beginning, in 1979, came the revolutionary Margaret Thatcher, there to change all the assumptions of longtime left-wing Britain. She was conservative, tough, antitax, antielite, for small business, a doughty daughter of middle-class live-above-the-shop folk.
A year later her friend Ronald Reagan (who was born over a bank) took power in America and showed himself to be her sort. He had met her in the early ‘70s and told English friends she would be a good prime minister. (“A woman?” a Tory fathead had snorted. Yes, said Mr. Reagan, like Queen Victoria.) To make things even more interesting, the current pope, who came in in 1978, broke all the rules from the start simply by being Polish, and shared Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan’s views on totalitarianism, Soviet communism and religious freedom.
Mr. Reagan left in 1989, replaced by the softer George Bush. Mrs. Thatcher was forced out in 1990, replaced by the more ameliorative John Major. In 1992, after a dozen years of conservative-to-relatively-conservative federal governance, the people of America voted for change.
Enter Bill Clinton, a man of the left who was a reformer of the left and who, having seized the Democratic presidential nomination, moved to seize the restless and prosperous middle of America. To an extent he had a clear philosophy—expressed not by him, but by the intelligent and accomplished Susan Estrich, Michael Dukakis’s campaign manager in 1988, who told me in 1992 that she was tired of losing elections over the death penalty. She would now support those who were for it, such as Mr. Clinton, who made his point by sending a brain-damaged Arkansas man to his death during the campaign. (His name was Rickey Ray Rector, and he famously told his guards minutes before he was taken to the death chamber that he wouldn’t eat his dessert right now, he’d save it for later.)
In 1997 John Major and his Conservatives were upended by Tony Blair, a Third Way man who, like Mr. Clinton, always seemed to be devoting more of his impressive intellectual energy to hiding his views than communicating them. In politics you can walk like a cloud or pierce like a sword; Messrs. Blair and Clinton walk like a cloud, indistinct perhaps but large, and there, and recognizable.
In 1996, at the first chance, the conservative party of America, the Republican Party, fielded an old party war horse against the young Third Wayer. Mr. Clinton, astride a growing economy and relative peace, trounced him.
In 2001, at the first chance, the conservative party of Britain, the Conservative Party, fielded a young party war horse against the young Third Wayer. Mr. Blair, on top of a growing economy and relative peace, trounced him.
It took another try for the Republicans of America to scrape into the presidency, barely, six months ago. Maybe William Hague’s party will succeed after another try, and maybe it’ll just scrape in too.
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That the political experiences of America and England have pretty much mirrored each other the past few decades doesn’t mean the British are playing follow-the-leader. They are playing follow-the-trends. All the Western industrial democracies are experiencing variations of the same ones: changing demographics, changing populations, changing cultures, prosperity and its mixed blessings, a lessening of religious feeling.
(A great French novelist of the 19th century once said, feelingly but also as a simple observation, “Europe is the Faith and the Faith is Europe.” It has been a century since anyone could say that, but somehow it always comes as a surprise that Italy, say, is no longer a Catholic country in habit or culture. It somehow shocked me, though there is no reason it should have, that my first time in Paris, at Christmastime 1993, you could walk miles through streets and neighborhoods and not see a single sign or indication that a great Christian holiday was here. In France, the country of the Curé d’Ars and Bernadette or Lourdes and Joan of Arc.)
And a great challenge for conservatives in all the Western countries is how to show that conservatism is relevant, applicable to the times, reflective of the true nature of the people of the West—and to do so without violating what conservatism is. It is, of course and by its own nature, a way of saying “Stop!” to the aggression and bullying of government, to the encroachment upon the rights of the individual.
But it is fair to say and politically demonstrable that saying “Stop!” is not enough to rouse a populace.
I find that my mind goes back, and has for more than a decade now, to one word: immigration. We live, as we all know, in the great age of immigration, which is transforming America as it is changing Europe. (A small Catholic note: It is ironic and maybe cause for sadness that the church ended the standard Latin mass just as all the Catholics started moving around. The Latin mass might have helped them hold together. Then again, the church made the reform to help people understand what was happening in the mass by telling them in their language. I wonder if any immigrants to America would say that the mass said in English helped them learn the language.)
At any rate, immigrants as we all know have a general personality profile that could be called conservative, and that I would call conservative. That is: They put themselves in charge of their lives, made a big change that took guts, took a chance that showed faith in the future, work hard, are committed to education as a way to rise, care about their community, feel like outsiders, and have often been abused by their own governments, which is part of the reason they left home. They’re often church-, mosque- or synagogue-goers. Unlike affluent natives, they know they need God.
It’s hard to believe the conservatives of Western Europe can’t make something of that, can’t forge bonds that not only broaden their own base but even change the immigrant experience by including them, quickly, in the political life of the nation they’ve joined.
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A note about England. Margaret Thatcher, whom I know very slightly and admire greatly, once told me a wonderful thing. She told that the way she saw it, part of England’s purpose, part of its historic mission, had been to stop the bad ideas of Europe from jumping quickly and completely across the Atlantic. The little island to the west of the Continent was the last stopping point for Europe’s unfortunate affection for communism, for full-fledged socialism, and England had slowed them, helped stop them, before they jumped across the Atlantic like a great sneeze and made America and the rest of the West sick.
“It stopped Europe’s bad ideas!” she said.
Mrs. Thatcher is a Tory, and it is clear from her recent speeches that she thinks the modern Labour Party and the cunning and cheery-looking Mr. Blair are in fact aiming to outlaw England: to slowly, subtly take from it its Englishness. You start with the House of Lords, say, or fox hunting, and soon enough you’re on to abolishing the pound and relinquishing autonomous nationhood as you rush to join Europe.
Why would any leader, any great political party, aggressively follow a course that would ultimately lessen its own power? Because it won’t. It will lessen England, but it will raise up those like Mr. Blair and his followers who will go on to lead the new Europe. This is the rise of the Third Way boomers, the liberal intellectual and media establishment. It’s probably the kind of world the folks at AOL Time Warner would like, as they’d have only one big power to make deals with and not a dozen dinky little ones with strange rules and languages. And anyway, the point is: AOL Time Warner folk are culturally and in their politics like Mr. Blair, like Mr. Clinton, like the men and women who would rule the new Europe. They’ll be right at home.
One of the results of a new and fully confederated Europe would be a more homogenized Europe, one in which France is not so French and Germany not so German (yes, this would not be all bad), Greece so Greek, Ireland so Irish. A big Blairite blur of a continent, with the strings of power held in Brussels by bureaucrats whose loyalty is not to a nation or a national idea but to each other. To liberal bureaucratism. To being 50 years old and in power and shaping the new world as it ought to be shaped, which is along the lines you like—modern lines, leftist lines. Big state, big power, big pleasure.
I wonder how the immigrants of Western Europe will feel about finding out that even though they left this country and journeyed to that one they’re still in the old country, only now it’s run in Brussels. I wonder if they’ll like that idea.
I also wonder if, as each separate European country became more homogenized and more like the others, they will start to have very successful local theme parks where you can take the kids to visit your country as it once was. The one in Dublin would have people with big families and dad and mom drinking Guinness and fiery political arguments and pictures of the pope on the wall. I pick Dublin because I was there most recently, and also because I’m Irish-American and I can. The people online waiting to get in will be pleasant daddies with cell phones in their ears and Blackberries clipped to their pockets as they surf around monitoring what’s up with the euro today. (Actually, that’s what it looked like waiting to get into Dublin Castle last summer.) In the Rome Theme Park they’ll have a little Coliseum and a woman who looks like Anna Magnani chasing cats.
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I suppose another reason the Blair Labour Party will continue to push to join Europe is that it will be a rejection of the leadership of the United States, a decoupling of Europe’s fate with ours. That’s why they want to start a European army. The never-affectionate-toward America leaders of the coming European confederacy will rule a rich and united force of nations, one that has more power than ever, makes more impact on history than ever. And if the cost of all that is liberty, well, that’s a price they’d pay.
A loss of independence in the judiciary of individual sovereign states, a loss of power for an English government to call the shots in its own economy . . . It seems so counterintuitive. But sometimes history is.