american elections give us a glimpse of Britain’s political destiny-but this time the transatlantic traffic is neither as clear nor as one-way as it has sometimes been in the recent past.
It took the first television debate between Gore and Bush (though Bore and Gush might have been more accurate) to bring out that sanctimonious streak that Gore and Blair have in common; a flashback to the prefect who was always the one to remind teacher that he forgot to give out the homework.
But Gore is not, after all, a bad model for the chastened Blair to follow. They are in a similar position, trying to hold onto the classic political advantage of running on peace and prosperity despite the boredom of the voters. Part of Gore’s (and Blair’s) response to this has been to nod, at least in rhetoric, towards old style liberalism. (The politically eclectic New Republic magazine has been unusually pro-Gore in this campaign, thanks to the friendship between Gore and Martin Peretz, the magazine’s owner. But ex-editor Andrew Sullivan has just excoriated Gore in its pages for abandoning everything New Democrats were supposed to stand for and hurtling off to the left.)
The key to Gore’s campaign could also help Blair. Gore’s core strategy is to exploit the way that, by running as “a compassionate conservative,” Bush has allowed the campaign to be fought on the classic Democrat (and Labour) terrain of health, education and public services. In the past, the toughest challenge for Labour and Democrat campaigns was always to persuade the voters that they could run essentially capitalist economies better than the capitalists’ own parties. These days, Republicans and Tories have to argue that they can run slimmed-down welfare states as compassionately as the parties which founded and nurtured them. But they do not have very much choice in the matter; the big historic issues for the right-the external threat from something big and bad and the internal threat from the overbearing state-are both looking rather implausible.
On one crucial dimension of the next British election, Gore has no lesson to offer Blair. There is no “Europe” issue in the US, and despite Bush’s snipings over Kosovo and military spending and ballistic missile defence, not much of a patriotic card to be played in the US this year. It will be different in Britain, which may explain why we are not hearing…