Indulge me in a feeble pun, but Britain’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls had some chutzpah when he commented the other day, “I think [former two-term London mayor David Livingstone, Labour] would be a better mayor for London on Tube fares and jobs and housing than [incumbent Conservative] Boris Johnson who, let’s be honest, is a bit of a joker, a bit of a buffoon.”
Johnson, 47, beat Livingstone, 66, handily, in a rematch of their 2008 contest. In a city that tends to vote Labour, the popular Johnson saved the Tories from total humiliation in last week’s voting. It was not that, pace Mr. Balls, he is likely to be “better” than “Red Ken” on such issues as public transportation, affordable housing, and employment. Perhaps he is; what Londoners liked is that he does not pander to them or lie about what is possible, given the economic outlook for London and England. He promises “conservative” policies to make a better London, without any cheesy multiculturalism.
Although Labour pounded the governing coalition in municipal elections across England, staying well ahead of the Tories and obliterating their Liberal-Democratic partners, the Scot Nats took Glasgow, a traditionally Labour bastion, and seemed poised to gain a plurality in Edinburgh, which should allow them to govern the cultural capital of Scotland with the Socialists as junior partners.
Devolution toward greater Scottish autonomy? It is not impossible that Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, will seize the momentum and sunder the union that has existed since 1707. Salmond would like to have it both ways, maintaining existing welfare regimes for Scotland that are largely subsidized by the prosperous regions of what some (not multiculturalists) still call Great Britain in the south of England, while at the same time getting full control over local social and economic policy and indeed eventually charting an independent Scottish foreign policy. This could mean — as far as Salmond is concerned, the Scot public not having been consulted — among other things, joining various “boycott Israel” movements that have gained some traction in European academic exchange policies as well as trade and commerce.
Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson’s opponent in London, acquired a reputation as a consistent critic of Israel, regularly engaging in provocations smacking of anti-Semitism. Many in the Labour Party hoped he would not seek to regain the mayoralty, and his response was that he did not care as “rich Jews don’t vote for me” anyway. At any rate, Boris Johnson said with tongue only half in cheek that he was grateful his opponent was “Red Ken,” who announced his retirement from politics after this defeat. It is not a given, however, that a more centrist Labourite would have fared better against the incumbent.
There has been much talk about how recent elections in Europe are referenda on the poor management of economic affairs, and in fact Boris Johnson has been remarkably pragmatic about making the best out of difficult times, and the voters did not miss this. Meanwhile, the voters of Greece, Italy, Spain, and France have booted out their incumbents, as have the voters of Hungary. There does not appear to be a clear ideological trend here — left to right or right to left, authoritarian hard guys being replaced by “feminized” nice guys, as someone remarked recently. There is no clear trend at all. In Britain, for instance, the leaderships of both parties are seeking the soft middle ground. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron — Dave to his friends — has his Thatcherite moments, particularly with regard to European policy, but then he backpedals. Why not pull Britain out of Europe if things are going badly in Europe? It is politically, legally, technically, not so simple to rend the institutional wires that bind the European states together; but has he raised the “Britain Out” banner?
Boris Johnson, pragmatist — which means he thinks that what works for London, works — could prove to be a much more conservative leader of the Conservative Party than David Cameron, which is why the enthusiasm for his victory, the best news for the Tories in a long while, was somewhat muted at No. 10 Downing Street. Mr. Johnson, who came to politics from journalism. He still writes a fine, highly original tennis column for the Telegraph, which many observers of British affairs consider, with the Daily Mail, the top of the press in England. Having blocked “Red Ken” and saved Conservative hopes, there surely will be pressure on Mr. Johnson to wrest the party leadership.
THE “AGAINST” TREND in Europe expresses itself within party politics as well as in the perpetual competition between governing parties and opposition. You did not even have to wait for French President Nicolas Sarkozy to go down last Sunday for talk to begin of a “recomposition” of the center-right. Indeed, with less such talk and more unity, he might have squeaked by his Socialist opponent, François Hollande.
However, one simple explanation for the vote-against-whoever’s-in trend in Europe is that Europe, the thing as opposed to the place, ain’t working. That, at any rate, is the ready-made explanation usually adopted by blind-deaf-dumb journalists and instant experts from the academic boondocks. Mounting public debt — 90 percent of GNP in France! — insolvent pension funds, ever-greater demands for entitlements and high salaries by everybody, not only members of public sector unions, have bankrupted the old continent. A remote, technocratic, unelected European Union civil service, barricaded in the Berlaymont on Brussels’ rue de la Loi, passes laws and regulations that no one wants but that cramp business, cripple economic growth, prevent EU Europe from claiming and asserting its rightful place in the sun.
This is a seductive argument for Americans, and especially for conservative Americans. It suggests that you get into trouble if you use “The Three Little Pigs” as your guide for living. And it allows them to warn that if we do not mend our ways, we will go the way of Greece or worse — Ukraine.
This is unfair to Greeks and Ukrainians, who after all cannot be blamed entirely for the pass to which their politicians have brought them. And it certainly is not very useful advice for Americans. America is not Greece or Ukraine; it is not even England or Scotland, in case anyone needs reminding. Instead of engaging in trans-national comparisons of dubious usefulness, we ought to consider the more reasonable notion that the travails of contemporary advanced democratic states have to do with the state of advanced democracy.
Voters in democratic regimes always ask candidates, Whatcha got for me?, and candidates and pols always respond with some variation on This, that, and the other thing. And quite honestly, why should they not, I mean voters and public affairs leaders both? The danger now would seem to be that the less attractive qualities that democracy promotes in both voters and leaders are like loose cannon without the traditional guardrails that, as Adam Smith perceived with regard to economic life, function as a kind of “invisible hand” to turn vices, or at least less than noble attitudes, into socially beneficial forces.
“Not from benevolence,” Smith wrote, does the baker bake your bread or, in general, does anyone do anything. This human trait is not turned into its opposite by democratic regimes as they evolve into welfare states, and the bankruptcy of these is not likely to weigh heavily on the minds of bakers, bread-eaters, any more than on politicians and voters. If anything, welfare states seem to increase the human propensity to think in narrow selfish terms.
Nicolas Sarkozy tried to reform the French welfare state and for a time even hoped to break the grip of “welfare statism” on the modern French mind. He did much more than his predecessor Jacques Chirac, a nominal center-right man, but that he was disavowed last Sunday, albeit by a slender margin, suggests that France, like Chicago, ain’t ready for reform.
Will the recently elected Mariano Rajoy (Partido Popular, center-right) have more success in Spain (public debt 60 percent of GNP) than Sarkozy had, as he tried to reverse decades of full-turbine welfare statism? Will the “austerity” championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a counter to the European Union’s debt epidemic serve as a rallying point for those who want to get the house in order? Will Boris Johnson’s win in London have a “thatcherizing” effect in Europe? When, in 1981, the French elected a Socialist president on a radical platform, the example of Mrs. Thatcher served as a counter-point and reference for anti-socialists not only in France but across the continent and indeed across the Atlantic as Americans came to realize their recently elected president, along with the Iron Lady, were proposing an alternative model to the one that was supposed to have the wind in its sails.
This model held, prevailed, then came under suspicion again. Once again we are in a period of alternative visions. Democracy’s “gimme gimme” ethos is unlikely to ever change. Mr. Reagan and Lady Thatcher both knew this. They knew the arguments and arguments will swing back and forth as to whether your gimme is best got through the state or your own efforts — or some of both. But they also knew human nature can be channeled (sometimes negatively, by the state getting out of the way), wed to virtuous qualities, directed toward generous impulses, courageous stands. Sr. Rajoy just recently took a stand against creeping Stalinism in Ukraine — here we go — hinting that if Yulia Tymoshenko, the former, essentially liberal (in the European sense) prime minister is not released from the jail in which she was thrown by the thugs who are now in power in Kiev, Spain will lead a boycott of the Europe soccer finals, scheduled to be played in July in Ukraine.
It’s only sports, but it does not matter where you start, so long as you continue. The key quality to look for this year of nearly serial elections across the democratic West culminating in our own presidential contest surely is the moral quality of the pretenders to leadership. It is not a matter of grading saints and sinners, but of finding people with the ability to point to real and true reference points and insist on them. Our societies can muddle through the welfare-state-capitalist mish-mash to which democratic politics have brought them. They cannot survive moral and intellectual bankruptcy.