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Monday, Nov. 10, 2003


Britain needs political center

LONDON -- The British Conservative Party has once again kicked out its leader. Ian Duncan Smith had shown himself unable to control his party and capitalize on the mistakes and failings of the current British Government led by Prime Minister Tony Blair. He lacked charisma and displayed a sad lack of judgment in managing his own office.

His successor, Michael Howard, is a lawyer who has had considerable government experience. He was home secretary in the last Conservative government. He is "able to think on his feet" and should be able to score points against Blair in the House of Commons.

Possessing a quick mind and politically acute, he should also be able to make sense of the often contradictory policies advocated by his predecessor. His mind has been described as "sinuous" and his responses as "rapier like." Neither quality is greatly admired by the British public and his experience could also be a liability.

As home secretary he was regarded as a champion of the right wing in British politics -- anti-immigrants, although he was himself the son of immigrants, and a firm believer in tough punishments, although even he was opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty. His deputy at the Home Office famously said of him that "there was something of the night about him" implying a satanic element in his makeup.

Will he be able to lead the Conservatives to position themselves as an acceptable alternative to Labour in the next election? This will be very difficult. The Conservatives hold few seats in the cities and to win in a general election they must appeal to center in British politics. Howard has declared that he will indeed lead from the center and has called on all factions in the party from the right and the left to support him. It will not be easy for him to do this, not least because of his rightwing and authoritarian reputation, but unless he does succeed in uniting the party behind him he has no chance of even denting the Labour Party's overwhelming majority. The Conservative Party might even find itself at the next general election in third place behind the Liberal Democrats, who have claimed that their opposition to the Labour Party's authoritarian tendencies shows that they are the real opposition.

The basic problem for opposition parties in Britain is that the middle ground in politics has been firmly occupied since 1997 by Blair's "New Labour" Party which, as some would say, "stole the Tories' clothes." The old Labour Party had no possibility of returning to power in Britain in the 1990s while they continued to advocate outdated socialist policies such as nationalization. Blair, Gordon Brown and others recognized this. They ditched the old fashioned slogans, embraced the market economy and espoused social democracy.

The Tories have to find middle of the road policies that will appeal to floating voters rather than the rightwing policies that are wanted by their own grassroots supporters. The problem is to find convincing alternative policies which are attractive and realistic.

The biggest issue for the British electorate at this time is the provision of public services and how to pay for them. The right wing wants more choice and private provision as well as lower taxes, while the left wants to keep the private sector out of public services. The middle-of-the-road voter does not want to pay higher taxes but attaches prime importance to better and more efficient public services and does not really care whether they are provided by the private or the public sector. Some describe the popular attitude as being one of "wanting to have their cake and eat it too."

The Tories in trying to attract support have promised higher old-age pensions and the maintenance of free university education, thus appealing to the old and the young in all classes. Even the average unsophisticated voter, however, should be able to see that such populist policies cannot be combined with lower taxes.

The Tories make a lot of noise about saving money by cutting bureaucracy. There is little doubt that money could be saved in administration if there were fewer targets and thus fewer bureaucrats ticking boxes to show how far targets have been met, but savings of this kind are difficult to quantify and an attack on the government's passion for targets will not translate easily into votes.

The Tories must also think through their policies in foreign affairs. Under Duncan Smith they supported the government over Iraq and position themselves as defenders of the supreme importance of the Atlantic alliance while appealing to the viscerally anti-European elements in the country who regard everything and anything emanating from the European Commission in Brussels with suspicion if not hostility. But to appeal to the center the party needs to be less anti-European and must ignore the backwoodsmen in the constituencies. They would also be wise to avoid appearing as American poodles. The unilateralist policies of the Bush administration are generally unpopular with the British public.

Howard will have to find ways of undermining the growing Liberal Democratic Party threat to the Tories' position as the main opposition party. His own authoritarian and rightwing instincts leave openings for the Liberals who take the lead in attacking the government's rightwing policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and their attempts to curb established rights such as trial by jury and the presumption of innocence. For the middle of the road voter who attaches importance to human rights there may be little to choose between Tory and Labour Party authoritarian policies.

In Japan, too, opposition parties have to recognize that their only chance of success at the polls is to try to win the center ground. They need to enunciate policies that are convincingly different from those of the government but are also realistic. Britain and Japan both need healthy opposition parties that can maintain careful scrutiny of the actions and policies of the government in power and offer a real alternative government in waiting. The existence of an effective and determined opposition is essential for the health of democratic parliamentary government. Power corrupts and needs to be curbed.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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