OPEN YOUR EYES and you are in the still-pretty Victorian seaside town of Bournemouth, with clean beaches and a museum that houses the pre-Raphaelite paintings and chotchkes that newly rich families of the Victorian period so loved to collect. Close your eyes and listen to the speeches of the Tory politicians gathered at the Conservative party conference here, and suddenly you are back in America -- or rather, back in the America of C-SPAN and CNN's Inside Politics.
Determined to deflate Labour party head Tony Blair's claim that he is a tough-minded leader in the style of Margaret Thatcher, Tory chairman Brian Mawhinney tries a little Lloyd Bentsen: "I know Margaret Thatcher, and you are no Margaret Thatcher." John Major offered Blair his sympathies because the health of the British economy made it impossible for him to use the Clintonite slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." These sorts of jibes, and the sound of Louis Armstrong warbling "What a Wonderful World" in the background, are only the surface manifestations of the complete Americanization of British politics.
More telling is the mad rush by British politicians to update the venerable American "born in a log cabin" story. For American politicians these days, of course, something other than actual birth in a log cabin is required -- a drug-addicted brother, an alcoholic stepfather, a sister who died of lung cancer. Now British politicians also feel compelled to show they have suffered at the hands of the Fates and have persevered.
John Major told the crowd in Bournemouth: "When I was born, my father was 66, and my mother" -- pregnant pause, if I may be permitted a bad pun -- "was surprised." A low-earning circus performer, gnome-seller, and baseball player, the elder Major was forced to move his family to the Brixton slums and died when his son was only 13. "Financially, the roof fell in. Nothing special about that. But for us, it changed our life. My mother coped -- as women do. I left school at 16 because an extra five pounds a week mattered."
Although they admit to borrowing this Oprah-izing tactic from the Americans, British spin doctors are careful to point out that they won't carry the process of "humanizing" their candidates to American extremes. One senior Tory strategist told the Times of London: "Anything that makes a person empathize with John Major is an election-winner. . . . But the Americans go too far with the way they make the president mention his third cousin twice removed who is a paraplegic and deaf." And indeed, Major's recitation of his history is remarkably free of Bill Clinton's characteristic self-pity and emphasizes that the individual, not some village, has primary responsibility for coping with the misfortunes that may befall him. Society's responsibility, as Major sees it, is restricted to the not-so-trivial chore (especially important in class-ridden Britain) of giving people "opportunity and choice. . . . And by 'people' I don't mean 'some people.' I mean everyone. Opportunity for all."
Just as in America, where Bill Clinton brags of throwing women off welfare while Bob Dole brags about signing welfare checks, it's hard to sort out the new ideological fault lines in British politics. If the Labour party's lurch to the right (described here two weeks ago) wasn't enough for an observer to absorb, consider what it was like listening to Tory promises in Bournemouth. The chancellor of the exchequer promised to preserve the welfare state, committing the Conservative party to spending some 40 percent on government services in perpetuity. Riotous applause. The prime minister went him one better: The National Health Service, he said, "will get more -- over and above inflation -- year, on year, on year, on year, on year through five years of the next Conservative government." Rapturous applause.
If the American political parties have decided to fight for the sympathies of the mythical "soccer more," Britain has chosen "Sierra man" as its key voter. This legendary figure is a self-employed electrician who lives in a suburban development and drives a Ford Sierra -- a car designed, so says Ford, to appeal to "middle-England family men in their thirties and forties." These are voters who deserted Labour in the 1980s, and Blair wants them to " come home." He feels Sierra man's pain at past Labour policies: Sierra man " was doing very nicely. . . . His instincts were to get on in life and he thought our instincts were to stop him."
The Tories say Labour still wants to stop Sierra man. They claim to be the true representatives of "the hard-working classes," led by a man who understands their problems and is not the prisoner of the left-wing chattering classes. The Tory claim to be a non-exclusionary big tent has some validity; the proportion of Tory MPs who attended the snooty Eton school has declined from about 25 percent to 10 percent since 1960. But not everyone is convinced that trading reliable blue blood for new blood is a good thing. One Conservative MP said of his colleagues, "They retire early and sober to read another chapter of Hayek . . . and relax by watching Star Trek. They may not frighten the enemy, but by God, they frighten me."
Major isn't scared; he sees his new allies as the product of the meritocracy he advocates. And he may just parlay his "opportunity for all" slogan into a come-from-far-behind election victory if he can persuade voters that Blair's candidacy is merely "New Labour, old school ties." Blair says Major's dig is an example of the way his rival is importing "American-style" character-assassination techniques.
With six months to go until the general election, Major might -- just might -- make the pollsters look foolish, as he did in 1992. If he does, it will be because he accomplishes two things. First, he will have to maintain at least a faade of party unity on the question of British participation in the European Monetary Union that France and Germany are about to create. The majority of Tories, the so-called Euroskeptics, want Major to say no to monetary union -- and say it now. The prime minister adamantly insists that Britain's interests will best be served by continuing to negotiate the details of union, while postponing the decision whether to trade the pound in for the Euro (the new single currency). With the help of leading Euroskeptic Baroness Thatcher, who was persuaded by party elders to bestow a unity kiss on the PM in full view of the delegates, Major forced the dissenters to swallow their skepticism in the interests of comity.
Second, the prime minister will have to use his image of decency and homespun niceness to recreate the large gender gap that favored the Tories in 1992. One real difference between the two countries: British women tend to vote Conservative. In 1992, the Tories outpolled Labour by only 4 percentage points among men, but by 13 percentage points among women.
Major came to Bournemouth seeking to overcome the defeatism rampant in his party, and he succeeded in part by attacking Tony Blair directly and personally. The party faithful were buoyed by the realization that their candidate is willing to deflate the Blair balloon by calling attention to his privileged background, his inexperience (the job of prime minister is "too big a task for your first real job"), and his socialist roots. "It simply won't do for Mr. Blair to say: 'Look, I'm not a socialist anymore,'" Major mimicked. "'Now, can I be prime minister, please?'"
This is the red meat on which the Tory rank and file can feed, and it clearly invigorated the party's foot soldiers. But many MPs with whom I spoke weren't biting. They feel that the election is lost, not a bad thing in the eyes of those who want to move their party to the right. These Tories, many of them dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherites (and admirers of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America), want to roll back the welfare state, reduce income taxes and eliminate capital-gains and inheritance taxes, keep their distance from any European federal state, restore the institutions that are essential to a civil society, and crack down on crime and pornography. In defeat, they will unite behind a candidate for party leader who eschews the conciliatory approach of John Major in favor of an ideologically purer one. And that, in turn, sounds a little like American conservatives these days as they try to find a silver lining in a coming Dole defeat.
Bournemouth, England; Irwin M. Stelzer is director of regulatory policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.