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The Decline of British Politics

No Tea Party could ever get off the ground in Britain.

By From the November 2010 issue

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Peter Hitchens is Christopher's brother and works in London for the Mail on Sunday. He is the journalist in England I most enjoy reading and I had arranged to have lunch with him. But I had to call it off because my 98-year-old mother was going into a home. Side trips seemed a luxury. I'll quote something from his blog instead.

Background: After the general election in May, in which no party won a majority, the Conservatives (David Cameron) and the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg) formed a coalition -- Hitchens has suggested it should be called "Con-Dem" -- and then strolled into No. 10 Downing Street arm in arm. Gordon Brown, the unpopular Labour prime minister, has disappeared from public life, while Tony Blair, Britain's Bill Clinton, has been on the public stage playing the game of charades called Middle East Peace Process.

Some people in Britain -- my sister's husband, for example -- voted for the Lib Dems because they were campaigning to the left of Labour. Anyway, here is Peter Hitchens, who has been inveighing against Cameron ever since he became party leader in 2005. Some Tories, he wrote,

weirdly imagine that David Cameron is some sort of conservative. In the golf clubs they bray that he is using the Liberal Democrats. In Left-wing covens they complain that the Liberal Democrats have been swallowed by the Tories.

This is drivel. The blazing truth is that Mr Cameron is the smiling, willing prisoner of the Sixties Leftists who run the Liberal Democrats, and with whom he agrees about almost everything from cannabis to wind farms. His coalition with them enables him to trample on the remaining proper conservatives in his party, in the name of necessity. But actually he much prefers it to the majority Tory government he couldn't achieve.

One evening I had a beer with my dear brother. A few years ago he was elected as a councilman in a conservative stronghold (near Gatwick Airport). Why he ran for that unpaid office, I'll never know, but he does learn things. We were joined by an old friend who volunteers for the local Citizens Advice Bureau. This seems to consist mostly of coping with immigrants who walk in and hope to qualify for "benefits" so they can live at the taxpayers' expense.

While we were still on our first pint my brother told me something that would confirm Peter Hitchens's worst fears. Before the recent election, the incumbent member of Parliament in this safe Tory district, East Surrey, decided not to run. So the seat was vacant. In America that would mean a primary, the essential feature of which is that the voters themselves decide who the candidates will be.

But in Britain the Conservative Central Office can select the candidates, and in this instance they decreed that the choice would be: three women, a gay man, a Muslim, and a black man. Pick one.

A retired local Tory councilor expressed his outrage in the Daily Mail. "We are all very disappointed," he said. "We have had only two MPs here in the past 35 years. It should have been a privilege for us to choose our next one, but that right has now been taken away from us. Why does Mr. Cameron think he knows better than us what we want for our constituency? He doesn't live here!"

A local committee selected the black man, who lives in north London. Then he won the general election, quite easily. My brother says he's a good fellow, and I'm sure he is. But one thing is clear. He will be Cameron's man in Parliament.

In short, Cameron is centralizing power and using it to impose political correctness on the party.

Imagine what U.S. elections would be like if a committee of liberal Republicans in Washington could make up lists from which GOP candidates would have to be selected all over the country. Here's some gays, feminists, blacks, and Muslims: pick one. It's not quite that bad, but the point I want to make is that democracy in Britain is not what it is here. No Tea Party could ever get off the ground in Britain.

Peter Hitchens's most recent assessment of British politics: "The Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour Parties are all on the left, signed up to the sexual revolution, the moral revolution, the cultural revolution, comprehensive education, EU membership..."

The culture war? As Irving Kristol said years ago, we lost it. The economy? That is still in contention.

Britain has a budget deficit larger than America's, in percentage terms. The Con-Dems have already accepted a top tax rate of 50 percent (up from 40 percent) put in place last year by Labour. Now the coalition government is talking about big spending cuts (details to be announced October 20).

My guess is that the cuts won't happen. Already we are told they'll be spread over five years. Everything will be watered down. If you look at a chart of government spending in the U.S., the only time the budget was really cut was at the end of World War II. The problem is that those who benefit from government spending can always make more noise than taxpayers. If real cuts are announced, my brother predicts:

Strikes and a massive civil disobedience campaign are almost guaranteed, on a par with the demonstrations that routinely occur in France. There have been a few deliberate leaks, e.g. that many quangos are going to be abolished, plus a suggestion that university fees will be tripled. [Quangos are government-funded think tanks whose function is to provide cushy jobs for university graduates.] Hardly any serious axing of jobs will take place; instead they will say that staff economies will be achieved by natural wastage [retirement].

My impression is that it would be well not to have any part of this particular government. If the cuts occur, Clegg and the Lib Dems will be unpopular with their disillusioned leftist allies. If they don't occur, Cameron and the Tories will be unpopular on the golf courses.

Cameron, meanwhile, doesn't really believe in anything except holding office (or perhaps, as Hitchens says, he really is the "willing prisoner" of the Sixties Left). Either way, he's quite a come-down from Margaret Thatcher. The Labour Party may well end up better placed than the pundits now think.

WE MAY WONDER THIS: how come the left still enjoys so much support, not just in Britain but here too? Taken to an extreme, leftist ideas gave us Communism, the Gulag, Fidel Castro, and North Korean starvation. It's a path to power for murderers. On the other hand, a relatively untrammeled free market looks like Hong Kong.

As Obama and his supporters have shown, the intelligentsia crave power, and power in our day is only to be found on the left. Free markets take decision-making out of their hands. Equality in particular provides a never-ending rationale for the accumulation of state power. The goal of equalizing people will never be reached, so more redistributors and statisticians always need to be hired. On the BBC, as in New York Times editorials, equality is the basis for just about all the sermons.

Conservatives seem unable to weaken the influence of the idea. Why? One explanation is the general godlessness of the West. Once upon a time, the reigning idea was not simply how well you do in this life. That was not the real test, "for what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

But now, for so many of us, this life really is the whole show and equality has become the only valid measure of fairness. Those who do not believe in divine justice in the next life think that they must substitute social justice in this. "Social justice" is just equality by another name and those who play god aim to achieve it. 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).