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 quite so many British accents around the Gore war-room in Tennessee this year, although Philip Gould and some others from the Blair camp have turned up in Washington.
The Tories, meanwhile, have been lapping up Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” since Hague’s visit to Texas last year. Hague, Portillo and Francis Maude were all in Philadelphia for the Republican convention, although Hague’s closest contact (said to include regular emails) is with the other Bushbaby, brother Jeb, who is governor of Florida. And it’s not just the compassion thing. If Bush wins, expect to hear a lot more of that intriguing idea that Britain does have an alternative to Europe, by joining Nafta. Until recently, the American right had been rather puzzled and confused by the Euroscepticism of their British political friends. But they are beginning to see their point. With the EU shaping up to become a geo-political rival (albeit of a friendly kind), Euroscepticism is becoming increasingly fashionable in Republican think tanks. In return for Britain’s admission to Nafta, the north Yorkshire moors should brace itself for a massive rebuilding of the Fylingdales early warning system as Hague’s Britain signs up for Star Wars.
The Tories have taken home two lessons from the US campaign. Both represent a kind of political back-to-basics. The first lesson is to concentrate time, attention and as much spending as you can get away with on swing states, which in Britain will mean marginal seats. The billboards of Enfield will get booked early, and nobody leaving a Billericay supermarket will be safe from two or three Tory front-benchers.
The second lesson-more truthfully, making a virtue of a necessity-is that playing the underdog card can pay dividends. Bush has played the low expectations game so astutely that his ability to remain standing after the television debates looked almost like a victory. The other side to this tactic is to make the incumbent look out of touch and in the pocket of various sneering liberal elites.
Given that this looks like being the closest election since 1960, maybe neither Bush nor Gore will win big enough for their campaign tactics to dominate the Blair-Hague confrontation.
The one sure-fire success of the US campaign has been Gore’s choice as running mate, the devout Orthodox Jew Joe Lieberman. Which means Blair’s biggest problem could be to choose whether it will be Gordon Brown or John Prescott who goes under the knife for the circumcision. n