March 18, 2004,
LONDON, ENGLAND For British Conservatives, this has been the winter of their content.
Early March found England's capitol uncharacteristically bathed in sunshine. The agreeable climate matched the cheerful mood of leading Tories who lately consider their fortunes brighter than they have been in years.
"We are emerging, blinking, from under the rubble that we pulled down round our own ears," says Jamie Borwick, formerly a treasurer of the Tory party. The Winter Ball, a key Conservative fundraiser, has endured empty seats in recent years. Last February 3, 300 people were turned away while those inside the Grosvenor House Hotel contributed $925,000 boatloads by British standards.
The Tories "are certainly more intellectually curious than a year ago, and their attention has shifted from in-fighting and survival to policy and winning," says John Blundell, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. His free-market think tank is phenomenally busy these days filling requests for information and ideas from the Conservative shadow government.
"The mood has been transformed here now," says Peter Luff, Assistant Chief Whip and a Tory member of parliament representing Worcestershire, home of the inky sauce. Sipping tea inside Westminster Palace's Pugin Room overlooking the River Thames, he adds: "Until quite recently, a number of us were fearful of losing our seats at the next election. That always makes it difficult to organize and manage a party. But now, everyone here genuinely believes they will hold their seat with an increased majority. That makes it much easier. That becomes a virtuous circle. We're not yet saying we'll definitely win the next election. We know that's still quite a battle. But we're all very, very confident about taking a real battle to Labour when the election is called."
For this Conservative renaissance, thank M.P. Michael Howard. Last November, he replaced the tepid Iain Duncan Smith as leader of the Conservative opposition. Howard embodies "the British Dream." This son of Transylvanian immigrants rose from humble beginnings to a successful parliamentary career, including service as former Conservative Prime Minister John Major's home secretary, roughly equivalent to U.S. attorney general. Howard, a wily debater, artfully wields words. Tories praise his simple set of 20 principles posted at http://www.conservatives.com and echoed across the British Isles.
"I believe that the people should be big. That the state should be small," Howard declares. "I believe red tape, bureaucracy, regulations, inspectorates, commissions, quangos, '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."
In a February 4 parliamentary exchange, Howard mocked several backtracks in government policy by saying Prime Minister Tony Blair's "reverse gear is in full, working order."
While Howard waxes, Blair wanes, thanks largely to never-ending controversies surrounding his involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Still, he possesses ample political skills and is expected to seek reelection, perhaps in spring 2005. Under Britain's flexible parliamentary system, Blair could hold a national vote anytime before his five-year term expires in June 2006.
Conservatives welcome the challenge. They sense British impatience with runaway expenditures, rising taxes, and regulatory overreach by Labour-oriented, pan-European functionaries in Brussels.
"In 1997, the Labour government spent 45 percent of our national income," Tory co-chairman Liam Fox told Politeia, a London think tank, March 2. "By the time the Conservatives left office in 1997, it was down to 39 percent, and falling. Six years on, under Labour, it's back up to 42 percent, and climbing." Government payrolls also have burgeoned by some 650,000 positions on Labour's watch.
The Taxpayer Alliance, an activist group launched this year, found 50 billion pounds ($92.5 billion) in waste in this year's British budget. That sum, they say, could buy each English family a comfortable tropical vacation or free groceries for a year. Instead, the average household sees $3,700 in tax money squandered on projects like these:
$795.5 million to build a new Scottish parliament building first budgeted at $114.7 million.
$185,000 for an 86-page study on how people open plastic bags. "The larger the area for grasping, the more force can be applied to open a package," researchers revealed.
$129,500 to rename the Arts Council of England to Arts Council England.
$49,950 in annual salary per Breastfeeding Coordinator employed by each local council. One reader asked the Sun newspaper: "Can men apply?"
Financing these wonders, and much more, costs Britons a pretty pence.
Under Labour, central-government taxes have grown $2,775 per-capita over the last six years, Ruth Lea of the Centre for Policy Studies observed in the March 2 Daily Telegraph. After swelling 12 percent on average in 2003, local council taxes will rise 5.7 percent this year, outrunning inflation forecasts fourfold.
Clowns and acrobats have become the newest revenue sources. Circuses now must pay a $925 entertainment license for every new venue where they appear. "From postwar collectivism when the left rationed bread, we have now reached their new millennium madness, when they tax circuses," marvels Tory co-chief Liam Fox.
"The government has basically given so many targets to meet and programs to sponsor that a lot of councils are almost forced to increase their council taxes to fund those programs," says Matthew Elliott, the Taxpayers Alliance's chief executive. His group, England's only such organization, rallied 1,500 anti-tax activists in Trafalgar Square on January 31. Not bad for its first event. Already generating headlines, Elliott hopes to have 100,000 members fighting for lower taxes at the next general election.
The European Union's constant intervention annoys many Tories and could motivate voters. Brussels' latest scheme would ban sex-based pricing in car insurance. As IEA's John Blundell explains, young male drivers crash their cars more often than young women do. Auto insurance rates reflect the distinct risks between the sexes. Not celebrating such diversity could hike rates for girls, slash them for boys, and unleash more testosterone-filled drivers to careen about British roads.
"As the EU gets into even more farcical meddling, I am confident the day will come when we rise up and say we have had enough," Blundell predicts. "We voted for a Common Market, not a Common Bureaucracy."
Michael Howard raised both Labour and Tory eyebrows on March 1 when he withdrew Conservative backing of the Butler Inquiry, a probe into the quality of British intelligence before the Iraq war.
In the delightfully unrestrained fashion of British politics, Labour M.P. Gerald Kaufman stood during "Prime Minister's Questions" two days later to decry what he called "the wriggling, squirming mess of opportunistic hypocrisy we see opposite" on the Tory benches.
Privately, one powerful Tory admitted as much. In Realpolitik terms, he stated: "Opportunism is what the opposition does: We seek opportunities."
That concerns Allister Heath, economics editor of The Business, a Sunday financial newspaper. He worries about Tory plans to match Labour spending on health and education in a pragmatic, British version of compassionate conservatism.
"The Conservatives are giving up on the argument that you don't need massive spending to have quality health and education," Heath says. "They basically are saying that the left is right."
U.S. conservatives may share my ambivalence about rooting for those who plot Tony Blair's downfall. He is America's best friend overseas. His support for President Bush has been brave, sincere and unswerving. At home, nevertheless, he remains a man of the left.
Thus, Conservative M.P. Peter Luff urges Blair's fans on the American right not to fear his absence from 10 Downing Street. He is convinced a Tory prime minister would have stood with Bush on Iraq. Besides, he tells me, if Blair were re-elected, "my judgment is he would stand down within a year of winning that third term and make way for people who would be much less sympathetic to the Republican cause and ideals," Luff says. "If Republicans wish to have a friend in the United Kingdom, make sure there is a Conservative government after the next election."