September 25, 2008

September 25, 2008 | Commentary on Europe

Nanny state foibles

The fate of British Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party Gordon Brown ought to be a salutary example for American politicians advocating the return of the "nanny state." This week, the Labor Party meets in Manchester for its annual party conference, and oh, what a difference a year makes.

Last year, Mr. Brown had just taken over the prime ministership from his political partner Tony Blair and was riding high on soaring early approval ratings. This year, he is hanging on by the skin of his teeth, with a 22 percent approval rating and a simmering rebellion among junior members of his party just barely quelled. By some accounts he has been given 9 months to turn the Labor's fortunes around, or step down to give a new leader a chance before elections have to be held by June 2010.

The immediate cause of Mr. Brown's troubles is the distrust of the British electorate, which he earned last fall after promising snap elections only to change his mind in a very public, but not very confidence-inspiring way, after polls showed that Labor would lose. Labor's standing was in trouble after the departure of Mr. Blair, and Mr. Brown's dark personality was no match for the new media savvy Conservative leader David Cameron. Today, the Conservatives are 28 percent ahead in the polls.

Then there was Mr. Brown's reversal on the promise made by his predecessor that the British people would have a chance to vote on the EU Lisbon Treaty, the latest version of the EU Constitutional Treaty. The British are among the least enthusiastic "Europeans" and finding themselves deprived of the opportunity to vote on a matter of critical importance for their sovereignty as a nation, which has left a bitter taste with many.

But beyond these major political missteps, there are real issues of policy that are of concern for the British public - and indeed those who have a mind to learn any lessons from Mr. Brown's doldrums. In fact, the more you think about it, parallels between the United States and Great Britain, the two largest economies in the G-8, begin to look prophetic.

By contrast to his predecessor, Mr. Brown has revealed himself to be an old-fashioned British socialist, of the kind the world has not really seen since the 1970s when trade union power brought the country to its knees with strikes and riots. Since then, the socialism they stood for has been a discredited force, and indeed Mr. Blair rode to power in 1994 on slogans of New Labor policies, inspired by President Clinton's New Democrats and based on essentially conservative principles of free markets and deregulation.

Mr. Brown served in the Blair Government in the powerful position of Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Treasury secretary, and claims rights of authorship for Britain's financial boom of the past decade. But unleashed on his own as Labor leader, he has shown a very different side. While he will be speaking at the Labor conference as this page goes to press, Mr. Brown's promises from last year's conference speak volumes. For American voters, they will have some ring of familiarity by now as our own presidential campaign moves into high gear.

Mr. Brown back then promised free daycare for all two-year olds, free one-on-one tuition in science and math for hundreds of thousands government of school students, free education for 18 years, including in vocational schools or as free college tuition for anyone who could not afford it. From improved national healthcare to fighting binge-drinking among teenagers to more computers for local police, no matter was too small to be left untouched by government hand.

While the British economy was flush with money, all these promises may not have seemed so outlandish, but they certainly do today. Typically, Mr. Brown's response to the financial turmoil now affecting Europe as well as the United States is that the world financial system needs tougher regulation and an early warning system to sound the alert about practices at Lehman Brothers and the like. He has advocated that this tsunami warning system be housed at the International Monetary Fund, of all places. Mr. Brown is planning to propose his monumentally bad idea at his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week.

This kind of international financial governance will as surely as anything kill the global prosperity that deregulation has fostered in recent decades. So will the failed policies of socialism past - whether it be in Britain or in the United States.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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