Not since Winston Churchill have the British been so anxious to dump the party and the people who have led them through adversity to victory. The first time, it was the winning of World War II. This time, it is the remaking of the economy and the rekindling of growth after decades of stagnation. In both crises, the Tories carried the day, only to be given the boot. That assumes, of course, that the Labor Party's Tony Blair keeps his lead over the Conservatives and ends their 18-year reign in general elections on May 1. If he does, Blair faces two significant challenges.
First, Blair must show that the "new" Labor Party can be trusted to govern. Polls show that the British electorate want a kinder, gentler form of Thatcherism--not a return to class warfare, nationalization, high taxation, and regulation. Blair has to prove that he can retain and build on the painfully won economic achievements of the past two decades. Today, Britain has the healthiest economy in Western Europe, with one-third of Germany's unemployment, strong growth, and low inflation. Its reengineered corporations are global players in pharmaceuticals, air transportation, jet engines, finance, and telecommunications. Of Europe's top 50 corporations, 19 are British. Its research centers are leaders in bioengineering. Blair needs to retain these gains while focusing on those regions and groups left behind.
Blair should follow President Clinton's lead by keeping the broad macroeconomic policies of the previous conservative government and employing a series of microprograms to expand opportunities and spread the new prosperity to Britain's Northeast and Northwest regions. The Labor Party will need two terms to establish its political credibility and accomplish its goals. That means Blair must move ever so gently.
The biggest opportunity for him may come with Europe. Germany and France were appalled at the social price paid under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's restructuring of Britain's economy. She, in turn, was rather disgusted with their state welfarism. Blair has a chance to put a friendlier mask over Thatcherism and sell its message of markets and pragmatism to a Continent still mired, in many ways, in stagnation. Britain's obvious economic success is a good calling card for Blair. Thatcher ignored France and Germany. Blair shouldn't. A touch of British pragmatism could help undo the knots and snarls that the proposed European Monetary Union has tangled around Continental fiscal and monetary policy. A friendlier Thatcherism with a Labor hue might even give a boost to the Social Democrats in Germany, where Helmut Kohl seems to be backing away from needed reforms and may be in trouble.
But all this depends on continuing economic prosperity in Britain. Blair cannot give in to the remaining hard-line Labor members of Parliament who want him to pursue a tax-and-spend course of action. He has a chance of returning Britain to a two-party country again but only if he earns it.