January 7, 2004

January 7, 2004 | Commentary on Europe

Signs of life

It is just the luck of the British Conservatives that when their new leader finally produced a major political and philosophical credo last week, the news all but got drowned out. The headlines here were grabbed by terror alerts grounding British Airline flights to Washington, and by Prime Minister Tony Blair's surprise visit to British troops in the Iraqi town of Basra.

Even so, it was a welcome sign of life from the long-suffering Conservative Party when its new leader of only two months, Michael Howard, went on the offensive last week. For too long, Tories have been attacked for not believing in much of anything, a charge that will be harder to make after Mr. Howard's statement of his political beliefs in a lengthy memorandum emailed to 100,000 Conservative supporters on New Year's Day.

There is no doubt the party suffered from an ideological vacuum after the end of the Thatcher era. A series of rather uninspiring Conservative leaders left the field open for the charismatic Labor prime minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, to claim the Thatcher legacy, both in foreign policy and in pursuing a business friendly climate.

After Prime Minister John Major lost the election to Mr. Blair in 1997, William Hague led the party to even more resounding defeat in 2001. He, in turn, was followed by Iain Duncan Smith, who did not even get the chance to lose an election, being ousted after the last party convention in October. The Tories have been in such disarray that they have not even reaped political advantage from the Mr. Blair's declining popularity at home.

Whether Mr. Howard will be the man to lead the Tories to electoral victory is an open question. Known as a hardliner, he was not widely popular when he served as Home Secretary under Lady Thatcher. What is encouraging, though, is that Conservatives finally realize they must produce ideas if the party is ever to return to power. As a result, they are now coming out with policy prescriptions in areas like education and healthcare. This new thinking is the context for Mr. Howard's unprecedented statement of beliefs.

American observers will recognize much of both style and substance. At the core of Mr. Howard's political principles are smaller government, individual freedom and responsibility. There are echoes of the Declaration of Independence, the speeches of John F. Kennedy and Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. Mid-wife to the idea is party chairman, who helped promote the Thatcher Revolution back in the 1980s.

"I believe it is natural for men and women to want health, wealth and happiness for their families and themselves," goes Mr. Howard's opening statement.

"I believe people are most likely to be happy when they are masters of their own lives, when they are not nannied or over-governed."

"I believe the people should be big. That the state should be small."

"I believe red tape, bureaucracy, regulations, inspectorates, commissions. Quangos [commissions], 'czars,' 'units' and 'targets' came to help and protect us, but now we need protection from them. Armies of interferers don't contribute to human happiness."

"I believe in equality of opportunity. Injustice makes us angry."

In other respects, however, European social democracy and political correctness have left their mark on the declaration. Presumably no European "conservative" -- a concept that has to be seen as relative on the political spectrum -- can get away from it. Or maybe the Tories will try to triangulate social issues, much as we see the Bush administration do in Washington.

"I believe every parent wants their child to have a better education than they had."

"I believed every child wants security for their parents in their old age."

"I believe that by good fortune, hard work, natural resources and rich diversity these islands are home to a great people with a noble past and exciting future."

The reception here to Mr. Howard's credo overall was quite positive. Several papers suggested that Mr. Blair, who is known as the ultimate pragmatist and political survivor, ought to follow his example and produce some principles of his own. Some perceptively noted that there was no mention of Britain's relationship with Europe, a lethal issue that still splits the Tory Party down the center.

Yet others criticized Mr. Howard's beliefs for their blandness. But the real point is that they very likely conform to the views of the vast majority of his countrymen - bland or not. If the new Conservative leader can hammer that message home with the voters, power may yet again change hands in Britain.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in The Washington Times