"The problem with politics today,” Gisela Stuart complained over coffee in the House of Commons cafeteria, “is that there’s no passion, no big ideas. No wonder the public’s not inspired.” An iconoclastic Labour MP for Birmingham, Stuart herself is inspiringly intense, but her diagnosis is a common one: Locked together in a mutual embrace of managerialism, Britain’s political parties stand for nothing more than the quest for a triangulated victory.
This view contains an element of truth, though Britain is not the only democracy in which a majority of the votes are to be found close to the center. But since the last general election, in 2010, Britain has debated austerity (without really practicing it) and rejected both proportional representation (firmly) and Scottish independence (barely). Its third party, the Liberal Democrats, has collapsed, as has Labour’s support in Scotland. Together, the U.K. Independence party (UKIP), the Scottish Nationalists (SNP), and the Greens now poll a quarter of the vote. This is not a politically placid nation.
It is nonetheless true that the differences between Labour and the Conservatives in Westminster, while loudly proclaimed, are limited in practice. Both are led by a metropolitan elite. Both Conservative prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband would prefer Britain stayed in the European Union. Neither party says much about foreign policy, and both tacitly accept that British defense spending will continue to fall. Both opposed Scottish independence, and neither sees much room for tax increases or spending cuts, never mind a wholesale rethinking of government. Neither evinces any discomfort with the toxic combination of po-faced political correctness and paternalist nanny-statism that is characteristic of contemporary Britain.
But this is not the first time that observers have remarked on the growth of political consensus in Britain. In 1954, the Economist, arguing that certain similarities existed between R.A. Butler, a Tory, and Hugh Gaitskell, of Labour, dubbed the composite “Mr. Butskell.” This in turn gave rise to the claim that the early 1950s were dominated by Butskellism, a British version of the supposedly placid consensus of the Eisenhower era in the United States.
Today, the strenuous partisan warfare between Cameron and Miliband belies the emergence of a comparable composite, Mr. Camerband, who embodies a near-convergence that goes well beyond finance. The only exceptions in the current Tory-led coalition are Michael Gove’s reforms in education, which got him demoted, and Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare revolution, which has survived largely thanks to Smith’s passionate commitment and seniority within the party.
Historians have not been kind to Mr. Butskell, pointing out that the philosophies of Labour and the Tories were actually quite distinct. Yet there was a degree of convergence in practice, created not by shared beliefs, but by the systemic pressures acting on both parties. Postwar Britain wanted a welfare state, high growth, low inflation, and full employment, while, in order to maintain the fixed foreign exchange value of the pound, it needed a positive balance of trade. As long as Britain refused to choose between those objectives, which were defined partly by ideology and partly by international financial realities beyond Britain’s control, neither party had much room for maneuver. Mr. Butskell was the product of those constraints.
Of course, Butskellism didn’t last. Britain’s very refusal to make choices made it steadily harder for the nation to accomplish anything at all. Margaret Thatcher’s achievement was to choose in practice between aims that were all, in principle, desirable: Like Reagan, she chose to focus on inflation. The reward for Britain was political and economic recovery; the reward for the Conservatives was the unparalleled feat of four successive victories over a Labour party that had lost touch with the aspirational classes.
Today, the Tories would give a lot for just one such victory. Objectively, the campaign shouldn’t be close: The growing British economy contrasts strikingly with the sickly performance of the eurozone, and only 15 percent of the British public views Miliband as a plausible leader of the nation. Labour’s collapse in Scotland bids fair to lose the party 50 seats, while UKIP looks likely to take only a handful from the Tories. Senior Conservatives privately profess faith in victory, and even candidates in no-hope seats believe the party’s chances are brightening. If politics is the art of the possible, it is hard to see how the Tories can possibly lose this one.