But if New Labour had to answer for both stoking and then bursting Britain’s economic bubble, the Conservatives had to answer for making it possible in the first place. Once a legacy to be proud of, Thatcherism, with its free finance and markets, was now seen as the root of the whole problem. The unemployment and polarization of the Thatcher period had likewise not slipped from the British collective memory.
As the historian Tony Judt remarked in an article in The Independent, Cameron’s virtue is that he acknowledges that British society is broken. His vice is that he refuses to acknowledge that it was his party that broke it. When the general election was called and the campaigning began, Cameron found himself at sea. He offered little but platitudes on the economy and his party’s Thatcherite legacy.
In the meantime, his would-be chancellor, George Osborne, publicly asserted that no sacrifice would be too great to balance the budget and save the pound — even if it had to be done on the backs of those taxpayers who had just been required to save the banks.
Cameron’s performance still looked like it would be enough, and until a week into the campaign, most presumed that he would win the election. But then the unthinkable occurred — a third candidate emerged. Nick Clegg, the young, appealing leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party that, due to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, is always the bridesmaid and never the bride, shot to the front of the race after a good performance in the first two of Britain’s three televised election debates.
The Liberal Democrats, viewed as neither the descendents of Thatcher nor the boosters of bankers, now threaten the country’s longstanding duopoly of Labour and Conservative.
Clegg’s triumph is far from certain. It is likely that no party will emerge from the elections with a clear majority, since the Conservatives are polling short of the percentage required to win outright. This would be an enormous change from the strong, single-party governments and authoritative prime ministers that have previously dominated British politics.
Would this system be missed? Perhaps not — the electorate seems ready to abandon the old system. As the financial crisis destroyed the balance sheets of swathes of middle England, it was revealed that parliamentarians from both of the major parties had been looting their expense accounts to pay for second home mortgages, porn channels, tree surgery, and floating duck houses. This fueled popular outrage against the political class to match that already in play against the financial class, and the Liberal Democrats seem set to benefit most from this moment of turbulence.
With a new electoral balance, the United Kingdom could become more like its European neighbors, with proportional representation, coalition governments, and an increasingly decentralized political system.
For these reasons, the election on May 6 is not business as usual. It is more than just a reconfiguration of British domestic politics; foreign policy changes are likely as well. There, three issues press the next government’s agenda — force projection and great-power status, Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States, and its relationship with the European Union.
Britain ceased to be a credible world power during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, yet it still seeks to punch above its weight. With a weak economy for the foreseeable future, however, the new fiscal reality may curtail such ambitions, no matter who wins the election. The IMF has estimated that to bring the U.K. debt level back to around 60 percent of GDP, Britain will need to cut the equivalent of 12 percent of GDP from its budget over ten years.
Big-ticket force-projection items, such as the Joint Strike Fighter and the modernization of Trident, the United Kingdom’s missile-based nuclear weapons program, will necessarily come under intense scrutiny. International commitments, such as Britain’s continuing presence in Afghanistan — which is already deeply unpopular with the British public — may also be called into question.
The future of Britain’s so-called special relationship with the United States is also unclear. Blair used it as a rationale for joining the Iraq war, but what the British got out of the bargain is far from clear. Blair appeared unable to influence U.S. policy, and the United States could have prosecuted the Iraq war in much the same way without even one British soldier being present on the ground.
Indeed, as the former U.S. State Department analyst (and apparent Cuban spy), Walter Kendall Myers, was fired for saying in 2006: “It has been, from the very beginning, very one-sided. There never really has been a special relationship, or at least not one we’ve noticed.” It is perhaps fair to say that the British public has now noticed this, too. Politicians of all parties, therefore, must play this card very differently in the future, if at all.